I was never alone hiking in Northern England.
May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.Edward Abbey
I just might be at the most beautiful wild campsite yet, and the last of the wild sites. Tomorrow, when I hit Shap and cross the M6 motorway, the lakes will be just a memory – and most camping will happen next to pubs.
Last night was cold and damp. The sky was clear and some very bright planet peaked into the alicoop from the south across the Tarn. I shivered when I emerged into the wind and before I could make tea, a chilling mist sneaked up the dale “on tiny cat’s paws” covering the sun, causing me to shiver. The hardest chore camping is to take down in the rain. But taking down in the cold is right up there in challenge, when your frozen fingers can barely work as they touch metal and you try to roll up the tent and carefully stuff it in the bag. I sang to myself to move faster and stay warm as I left that lovely place, down and down to Patterdale.
I always worry the impression I make when I enter town and need to buy things. I see myself as strong and intrepid, having added ten major peaks to the trail plus a day’s climbing. But the impression I must give is a bit raggedy, my hair squashed into a buff and held tightly off my burned face, my hands dry as crocodile leather, and my body smelling like a barnyard, and that’s an insult to barnyards everywhere.
But what a delight to discover that haggard hikers is the norm and I fit right in. All the action is at the local post office – part store, part cafe, part charging the electronics pit stop. Apparently it was the favorite of Alfred Wainwright himself, and the first to carry his beautifully illustrated trail books. BBC broadcaster Julia Bradbury hosts a special on her top Wrainwright walks and raves about the bacon baps at this very spot, so I was found mid-morning enjoying one myself.
A thru-hike never really feels like a thru-hike until it’s time to resupply. On the Colorado Trail and the John Muir Trail, I sent my food ahead, but here, like France, I knew I’d drop into towns and could pick things up as I went along. Of course, you’re at the mercy of what’s available, like potted soup, random bars and “smash.” The tea selection was good and I was surprised the tiny store carried isobutane for the Jetboil.
It was hard to leave, but I needed to make some miles today, so crossed the beck and looked for the trail headed straight up the next set of hills. As I moved up, a few RAF jets came careening down the dale, the sound sudden and terrific.
Up the trail, I finally saw trail workers laying the stone paths, young people I asked might show me how strong they are for a photo, and replying “but we are strong!” Now on the official C2C, more people shared the trail. Many a “hiya!” and “awright” as I meandered up the path.
If a walker sticks to the classic route, this one will be the hardest they hit. After so many peaks tackled, I was feeling pretty cocky. This is gonna be a breeze as one false summit after another was crossed. The map was clear, I’d walk nearly four miles before hitting the highest point at Kidsty Pike, but I obstinately believed each rise was my destination, even after passing the shapely Angle Tarn, only half-way up.
I only took a few wrong turns, quickly corrected, before seeing the obvious pointy brow of the pike and the long gulley leading to Haweswater. It was a lovely perch of jagged rocks framing the high peaks of the lakes I had only recently climbed. But as I admired the view, the wind dropped and the midges rose, as if one amorphous organism setting down on my face and hands. Think African Queen, no swatting would keep this evil cloud away, so it was out of there as fast as I could. It seems it’s not just water that attracts these buggers.
The next stage made me a bit nervous as my official guide warned of a steep, rocky descent where hands would need to be used. The first part was velvety grass, the type fell runners crack straight down. I’ve gotten pretty good at that myself, even with a pack. Sticks help the technique of placing your feet facing down, bending your knees, leaning back and running in smallish steps. You really move. No more zigzagging for this #blissfulhiker!
But the fun was over when the stones appeared. Wainwright himself suggests your best defense is to use your bum. There’s certainly no shame in it, and I have the snagged trousers to prove it. So I was fully prepared to get down in whatever undignified way necessary. It was a bit of challenge; a wee bit. I guess if this was your very first big pull, a fair warning might be useful, but I’ve been hiking now nine days, so just flew right down.
Haweswater is a reservoir, one that completely buried a village. In drought it’s said the ghost town comes into view. Right now, all that can be seen are crumbling rock walls and overgrown trees. My site is next to a small stand of tamarack next to a burbling creek. Idyllic and absolutely at peace. Hoping for Shap and Orten tomorrow, and on to the Pennines!
There are two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.Albert Einstein
Seathwaite Camping Farm is accommodating the alicoop for tonight. It’s a real working farm with implements scattered about, stone-walled buildings of indeterminate usage, odors sweet and pungent and sheep allowed to roam. Its location is divine, surrounded my Lakeland fells in a kind of bowl, the burbling brook in duet with the lambs calling for their mothers. She calls first, a low-throated “baaaaal” answered by the sweetest “beeeel” as the little ones run to find a ready teet, leaning in, their tiny tails wagging. Right now, the clouds are pink, a cuckoo is singing and the midges are surrounding me.
Light comes early this far north, so I was up and out for a day of peak bagging by 7. After much reconnaissance of the map, I realized a backpack was going to make some of the going up England’s highest peak not only hard, but verging on dangerous, so I hatched a plan to contour up fields from the east.
There was a very narrow road some of the way, but soon I needed to simply get high. Up I went. Straight up trampled meadows, breathing hard and finding my rhythm of determination. I’d focus on a rock and go for it, huffing and puffing and watching Wast Water come more into view. The tops of the fells were all in mist, but my mind seized on a sky beginning to lighten. Perhaps it would burn off, I thought.
Just as I reached the ridge, Sca Fell in all her glory came into view. A giant, massive, distant lump. While it was clear, I headed straight for her with a blessing from peak goddess as a path suddenly appeared in front of me, replete with cairns.
And the timing could not have been more perfect. Just as I alighted the mist came down completely. All was obliterated. I have been in full-on fog and had some exposure to the English version, but when you’re looking for the peak and out of breath, utter blindness can be terrifying.
I pushed on, up scree at about a 55 degree angle, like in a nightmare when your feet can’t get purchase and there’s no context for how far you’re going. Rocks loomed into focus, but were never the promised summit. At one point, I saw the mountain top, far away and massive. My heart sank thinking there was no way I could get up that. It turned out to be a mirage, just a pile of rocks appearing further away then they were. And in fact, that pile was the top. I set my backpack in a wind break, put on more clothes, grabbed the phone and gps and cracked up to the top to find no view whatsoever except for swiftly moving mist.
Out of nowhere came a few other hikers. Pictures and beta were exchanged, as well as “all that work and this is what we get.” Most importantly, they sent me down a route that would get me to Sca Fell Pike. Just when you thought you were at the highest peak, someone goes and busts your bubble to correct your ignorance. Not only did you bust your ass for no view, but Sca Fell itself is not the highest.
We said our goodbyes and I searched out my trail. Understand, this is in a fog so thick, I barely saw three Fell runners, dressed in shorts and the lightest of rain gear, coming up the trail. They assured me I needed to find Fox Tarn, take a left and crack up to the Pike.
Not so fast. Going up would be after going down a huge slope of rocks upon rocks flailing underfoot. Looking down the scree shoot, I couldn’t believe I needed to descend so low to go higher on my peak bagging.
Finally the mini lake came into view, a magical spot tucked into the crags and teaming with big black slugs. I sat to enjoy this lovely blissful place feeling I’d arrived at some sort of destination. That was until I saw the continued descent, down a water filled gully of broken fallen rock. I imagine the ascent would be fairly reasonable, but the descent with 22 pounds on my back was a broken ankle waiting to happen. I soon became one with the mossy rock, sliding as much as walking.
Fox Tarn is up there as the most difficult trail of all time. Once I reached bottom, it was right back up another scree slope. A young man greeted me at the top to the fine views and to share that he was working on his first Class 3 scramble, one first ascended by Samuel Coleridge Taylor in 1803. I hung back a while to watch him negotiate the exposed ridge, my “woohoo” and his “cheers” echoing off the rock.
It was time to press to the top and being the highest point, I could already see that Sca Fell Pike was packed with tourists, all happy and full of the joy of success. A few pictures, a snack and then I was off for Seathwaite along a ridge of hills, one after another hanging high above the lakes. It was an absolute dream of beauty, though perhaps not the kindest underfoot with rocks, slippery pebbles and more rocks. I thank the good people of the Lake District who thought to pave the trail with individual stones strategically placed by hand. No garden designer could compete with these lakes trails. After starting the day simply marching upwards of 1000 feet in fields and making my own trail, the pavers were a god send.
It’s off to bed now to get set up for tomorrow’s climb of Napes Needle, a big approach back up those paving stones to get to one of the most famous crags in the lakes.
Bang sticks for luck with the weather.
Nothing is as close to magic as nature.Anastasia Bolinder
It’s happened again. I’ve found myself in a pub, talked into trying the local liquor, a Lakes vodka. Hit the spot after a long, satisfying day.
The alicoop has been carried to Wasdale, a village not on the official C2C, but full of history with a reputation as the most photographed town in the district. It’s luscious green valley is sectioned into intricate squares and rectangles of sturdy rock enclosures for the local sheep. A sign warns us that every ewe is pregnant, though some must have birthed recently as countless lambs in black and white bounce around, testing out their balance, looking for the good grass outside the fence and mewling non-stop. I know this, because my tent is set up in one of the enclosures reserved for people with tents. It’s likely the most bucolic place I have ever slept.
The very best fell runners come from Wasdale, and right here where I write, Wasdale Head Inn, is the preferred meeting place for climbers headed up Sca Fell, Napes or Pillar, a peak I summited today gazing longingly at the rocky cliffs, their sharply defined crags seemingly pulled straight out of one of Wainwright’s pen and ink drawings.
Why did I come this way? To bag a few peaks and linger longer in one of the most beautiful places in the world. The morning began with heavy winds slapping the alicoop. Breakfast was a challenge as I hunkered behind the rock wall. Though Ms. Wind was in the starring role all night, she finally exited the stage to make room for the midges waiting in the wings. Fortunately, I was packed, so suffered only briefly before leaping the fence and heading up Ennerdale Water.
It’s the Lakes, so it’s rocky and slippy, but soon I arrived in an enchanted forest of oak, gnarled and covered in moss with the smallest leaves I’ve ever seen. The birds kept up a chorus of morning song egging me towards the faint path up the mountain – or hill, as they’re deprecatingly called here. So, by logic, if they’re a hill, then why bother with switchbacks. Just go up, straight up. My pack is still fairly full this early in the hike, so I chuffed up happy to have my poles.
I want to say one thing about my pace. It’s not fast, but it is steady. One guide, long ago, told me to walk ‘under my breath.’ He meant to never get out of breath, even if breathing hard and to stay in that perfect zone that allows you to keep going. I usually pick a spot and simply head for it, one step at a time without taking many breaks. It’s rhythmic, meditative and moves me along at a surprising clip.
That’s not to say that after I’d gotten about 1000 feet above the lake, I happily found a spot to contemplate the beauty, breathe in my solitude and marvel that the wettest place in the UK was bone dry and sunny. I found several special spots all on my own, rising higher and higher towards the ridge, the ridge that would take me towards some of the highest spots in the Lakes. It was made famous by a challenge called the Bob Graham Rounds, a physical endurance test requiring a runner to hit over 40 mountain tops under 24 hours. That’s an elevation gain the size of Everest, in case you were wondering. As I took in the view at the rock cairn atop airy Steeple, a young man in training heaved himself up, touched the same rock pile, and flew back down.
Next was to figure out how to get down to Wasdale to get into position to summit Sca Fell and Mickeldore. I had my heart set on following a series of ridges, but the loss and gain of altitude felt a bit much and I would come out on a road south of town. So instead, I pushed towards Windy Gap, discovering my descent and subsequent ascent likely added up to just about the same in the end.
And there it was, the direct route off the tops of the peaks down to Wasdale. But it was straight down, eroded and with a pack seemed foolhardy. So I did the logical thing. I headed up another mountain top, straight up this time on a steep and eroded, rocky, hand over hand path up Pillar.
And what a spectacular spot! As I looked back at what I’d done, seeing the peaks I had in mind next, the mist came down. Fast and unrelenting. And that meant my trip down was fast and unrelenting. As fast as one can go on rocky trip hazards of ball bearing rocks giving way to one of the miraculous things in the Lakes, the paving stones. Large stones brought to the area by helicopter in big black bags and left to be placed by hand. There was something loving and touching about stepping on these, making the footfall calm and even and safer and taking me to the picture-perfect village and lamb for dinner.
I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list.Susan Sontag
The morning began with the sound of birds and breakfast being made for a decent-sized group of hikers, their luggage piled high in the sitting room. Their luggage would be ferried to the next B&B. But not for this intrepid one. With food, water and fuel, my rucksack – backpack – weighed in at 25 pounds and I was all my own.
After some small talk and “see you on the trail” betwixt us, I was off. The path heads west first, straight to the beach. I promised my friend Kate I’d wade in at least to my knees in the bracing Irish Sea, which I did, before – true to tradition – I selected a pebble to make the journey across England with me.
Up and up St. Bees Head towards its lighthouse past unimaginably beautiful vistas, the path sometimes within the animal fence, sometimes without, right at the cliff’s edge. It was full on sun all day, unusual for this part of the world, making the wild flowers sparkle in pinks, purples and yellows.
After a little over three miles, it was time to say goodbye to the sea and push west through Sandwith, Demesne and Moor Row, crossing under the railway line that brought me to the start and striding through fields of sheep and sheep poo. My water was getting low, so I stopped into a garage to top up. The eager proprietor had lots of advice in his accent of rolled R’s.
“Crrrrrikey , you’rrrre crrrrracking along. The sun will be on yourrrr back. Make surrrre to pick up all you need in Cleitorrrrr. Therrrre’ll be no otherrrr place to stock up forrrr days.”
Then he sent me up the hill reminding me at the top of the rise to turn left and “crash through the hedge” for the shortcut to the next village, where that proprietor happily disagreed with my comment about too much heat saying “it’s a nice change from the rrrrain.”
What a lark to have such a glorious day as I strode up and up through forest then out onto Dent Fell, the panorama of the lakes opening in front of me, the sea just behind.
The going was steep now, straight down the slope. And it’s here I’d like to sing an ode – in the form a haiku – to my trekking poles.
Walking Coast to Coast,
Up, down, views, flowers, wind, stiles.
Nil wobblies with poles.
The lovely people of Ennerrdale made a footpath next to the road for safety, but by now, my feet had had just about enough for the day. It was a walk past town towards the man-made lake and I felt sure I’d find a spot for the alicoop somewhere as the C2C follows the shoreline. But after a hard, tiring 20 minutes of scree-filled walking, I had to give up and turn around. Not one flat place showed up, just the grassy area next to to the overflow.
The spot appeared made for camping, its little locked fence unable to keep this tired hiker out. It even had a rock wall to block the whitecap-inducing wind.
Up went the tent, dinner soon made – mashed potatoes, broccoli and squash with beef jerky, apple chips for “pudding.” The sky is crystal clear promising another glorious day tomorrow as I scramble up some of Wainwright’s favorite peaks, one of them delaying the view of tonight’s full moon.
Not to worry. I’m crawling in now and will await her glow under the canvas.