Archive for June 8th, 2012

Everyone in the hostel had the same idea and we were all woken up at the same time by the chiming of alarms which were coincidently all set for the same time. I didn’t get up with the same spring that I did the day before. I was still quite tired, not fully rested but I knew that I needed to prepare for the day ahead, this was going to be the day where all the most difficult challenges were to come. Boy, I didn’t know the half of it.

A tin of Macaroni Cheese for breakfast, which was good because I needed some carbs and also I was shedding the weight of the tins which I was starting to regret packing. One of the Americans who was staying at the hostel asked what I was eating, when I told him he couldn’t believe it. Apparently its the wrong colour, quite how yellow can be the wrong colour for anything made from cheese I do not know, perhaps he makes his macaroni with blue cheese?

By just gone 8 Jonny and I were both ready for the off, we said goodbye to our hosts and made on our way.  It was a grey morning, the wind was blowing and there was a slight drizzle in the air. Not exactly what you would call pleasant, but it could have been a whole lot worse.We had not left for more than five minutes, the hut still in sight and Jonny put his foot into a deep puddle. His sock soaking already we had to stop to change that, fortunately Jonny had a spare set at the top of his bag and the drizzle didn’t get the new sock too wet.

The first challenge of the day was to get out of the valley which we had spent the night in. Having walked practically the length of the valley the night before we knew this meant only one thing: up. A small stream was out waymarker. The stream had carved a notch in the hill side and the rocks which it had uncovered made the basis of the footpath that we were to be following up the side of the valley. Also this was by far the steepest of the hills so far. I decided to use the old keeping the head down method, not looking around and seeing how far I still have to go. Also to keep my mind focused I decided to count my steps going up. There were exactly 1,900 steps to reach where the hill mountain began to level off.

It was a bit of a slog and a harsh way to begin the day but it did blow away all the cobwebs and I was quite refreshed by the top. I really wish the weather had gotten slightly better at the top, from here I guess on a good day you can see most of the mountains of the lake district and also Buttermere in the distance. That would have made a great panoramic shot on a nice day, but as it was, cloudy, windy, grey, overcast and generally quite drab, not to be.

Going over the top and back down the  abandoned slate tramway to Honister pass, I began to feel quite good about myself, I had none of the breathlessness of the first day, my legs were not aching, in fact nothing ached, I was walking fine. Only my knees began to give me a little bit of jip on the steep downward parts of the tram line, which used to send slate to be cut at what is now the Honister Slate Visitor Centre. We stopped in the visitor Center for a cup of tea. Jonny also got a panini. While we were having our break we talked to a Dutch couple who had also spent the night at the Black Sail Hut.

We left the Dutch pair to their tea and we carried on down the road. The footpath followed the contours of the next valley with little climb of fall, the paths were well trodden and easy to walk. The views of the valley below were great with the village of Seatoller in the distance. We passed Seatoller very quickly and ended up in Jonny’s Wood. This had nothing to do with my friend, the wood really is called Jonny’s wood. The map showed that we would not be in the woods for long, and I got quite concerned as the path continued for what seamed like hours through lush deciduous woodland. There was one section where the path went over a rocky out crop, the rocks were very slippery and both of us nearly went for a Burton on that section. The path eventually dropped and we were on the valley floor. It was lunchtime and we stopped outside the village of Rossthwaite. Rossthwaite is a tiny village in the middle of nowhere and yet it manages to support several B ‘n’ B’s a Youth Hostel, camp site and tea rooms. I guess that’s what you can do when your in a national park of such standing.

After lunch we carried along a nice, quiet, footpath, gravel underfoot that helped us make good time. The path followed the course of a fast flowing, wide river, which was nice to look at. Across the river, near the village of Stonethwaite, there was a campstie, which I remarked to myself must be a nice place to stay with the river so close, on second thoughts though, I bet on a hot day the midges would tear a man limb from limb.

The path began to climb after we passed through a gate. It was clear that this gate marked something,but I’m not quite sure what. From that point on the stones underfoot were more prone to shift and slide. There was less attention paid to keeping the walls maintained until after about half a mile they crumbled away and became more of the path material. There was no one moment where I noticed the change in the gradient as we went up the side of the valley, although I did look back at the river to find that it had stopped being as described before and just become a trickle of a thing, no more than a mountain spring.

Eventually I realised I was getting tired, I looked ahead and saw the path ascending in to the clouds, “ah crap!” I thought to myself. This one is starting to wear me out already and I can’t even be half way! Knowing I had no choice in the matter and that I just had to keep going, I concentrated on one step at a time and not how far I had to go. This worked for a while, until I had to stop to allow a group to pass who we going the other way. When I stopped and looked back at how far we had gone and how far we still had to go my heart sank. I thought we would be nearly at the top. I could see Jonny further ahead and I could see he was going to go over the edge so I couldn’t see him any more, but this was no indication that he was any closer to the top.

It took us several hours to reach the top and when we did we were in for a bit of  surprise. The top plateau was a huge bog which we some how had to cross. There was no path to follow, no rocks laid down by previous walkers, much like the climb up Dent the day before it was a mad scramble of everyone for themselves, no matter how much we churn up the bog and make it even worse than it already is. Trying to find a path across took us the best part of an hour, probably only covering a couple of hundred yards. It would have been much quicker but the cloud dropped at one point and we had really just a compass to work with because we could see hardly anything. When we got to a point which we could see a clear route across the rest of the plateau we stopped for a quick snack and a Dextro tablet to keep going.

From here we thought that we would have a clear run into Grassmere, just down this hill and its at the bottom. We had forgotten that this is the lake district, and in the lake district you have to do all the walking you think you need to do and then on top of that there is another valley that you will inevitably have forgotten you need to walk the length of. After having scrambled down the other side, passing the worst of the bogs, the path began to show itself again. There was a bowl of pure green wilderness below us, where the only things to see was sheep and a footpath. We descended the bowl and back up the other side, which compared to the previous incline was nothing. From the top of this hill though, we were thinking we would see the town, but it wasn’t there. A look at the map confirmed that we had to go all the way don this hill and then follow the valley floor  for a couple more miles.

On the way down the mountain we realised the time. There was no way that we were going to make it any further than Grassmere by the end of the day and out target of reaching Patterdale had been completely blown out of the water. Looking ont he map we found no camp sites anywhere near Grassmere. All there was, was a single youth hostel marked on the map. Apart from this I knew that out options were B ‘n’ B’s or wild camping. I could tell that Jonny had had enough for today. He was lagging behind and when he did catch up he kept suggesting  a wild camp, which to me meant he wanted to just stop. We did keep going for long enough to reach the edge of Grassmere. I suggested that we at least have a look for the Youth Hostel which according to the map can’t be far off at all. We did eventually find it and after the day we had, the cold, the wet, it would be nice to not have to pitch a tent and curl up in a sleeping bag. £20 sounded quite reasonable for that pleasure.

After arriving and putting down our things we sat in the dormitory by ourselves, no one else was with us, a room to ourselves. We lounged around for a bit, I tended to my feet which were starting to hurt a bit, before going back to the main building to make dinner. While in there we had the use of a proper drying room and a microwave (what luxury!). The good people who worked the hostel were very good and when I told them that we had not made it as far as we would have liked to they were soon on the phone on our behalf to make sure the camp site in Patterdale wasn’t waiting for us. And on top of that they had a local brew on tap, Keswick’s Thirst Run, which I nursed in the corner of the common room while I charged my phone. Not even dark outside, we went to bed to prepare for day three.

The alarm went off in the tent at 7 a.m. and we both woke up a little bleary eyed. There was no rush, no train to catch and no one to meet. We just had to get up and get on with it. We opened the door to the tent to let a little air in as we came to. The day outside was fantastic. The weather was beautiful. The swallows were out in force, swooping around, the sheep were bounding around in the next field and best of all the sun was out with just a little breeze to stop it from getting too hot. I thought to myself that this couldn’t possibly have been a better start.

Breakfast was done with fairly quickly, I had tomato pasta which was thousands of times better than the noodles which I had eaten yesterday, despite only being about 20p more. A quick was and then we packed away the tent, splitting the tent up to share the weight between us.

We left the camp site and made our way down tot he starting point on the sea front at St. Bee’s head by the RNLI building. Here we performed the rituals which have become part of the custom of doing to coast to coast walk. Firstly we went right down to the sea front and made sure that out boots were made wet by the sea. We then both picked a pebble from the beach to take with us along our journey. I had picked a silly part of the beach to descend and then struggled a lot to get back up the steep pebbled bank.

Eventually after scrambling to the top, in a most undignified manner, we had nothing left to do but to set off. And so at 8:45 …ish that’s what we did. It seemed a little bit odd. There was no drum roll, no one to wave you off, no officials. It was all a bit of an anticlimax to the start line I think (I don’t know what I was expecting though, fireworks perhaps?).

The very first thing which you come to after reaching the end of the sea wall at St. Bee’s is straight up. A huge hill which takes the footpath up onto the top of the cliffs and from there several miles of up and down as the path follows the sea north, which is a counter-intuitive way to start a  190 mile eastward journey. I had got to less than a quarter of the way up the first hill when I realised I was breathing very heavily. A few yards further up and I realised that it wasn’t a healthy pant as I made my way up a steep hill. I was out of breath already and still within view of the start line. What. The. Hell. This wasn’t even a mildly steep hill compared to some of the things which were to come, I knew this from other blogs and reports I had read before I left. If I couldn’t do this how in the world world would I cope with some of the big boys?

I worried about this in my head as I struggled my way to the top of the first hill. Jonny had made it to the top without anywhere near as much fuss and was waiting for me where the slope began to flatten out. This was basically the pattern for the entire journey. Jonny would storm off ahead, get to the top of a hill, or round to the next bend and then I would catch up. We carried along the sea cliffs without a problem. I got over my weazing and we both made fairly good time for a few miles going along the top of the cliffs. There were a few ups and downs in the cliffs but every time I went back up the other side I found my self with a little bit more breath than the time before. Just before we reached the end of the cliffs we stopped for a short break, here the first of our many encounters with other coast to coasters took place. A Canadian couple walked past us while we were stopped and had a short conversation with us. They had flown all the way over the Atlantic Ocean to do this walk, it was their main holiday for the year. I know a lot of people like walking but me and Jonny were quite stunned by the fact that they would go to all that trouble to walk in England. Surely there were places to walk in Canada? The couple soon carried on, only for us to catch them up later. We would play leapfrog with them for the majority of the day.

Turning our backs on the sea we passed a huge hole in the ground, I guessed it was some sort of mining operation. After that we took the fairly easy going undulating hills that made up the farmland which spaced the lake district from the sea. From here we were looking directly at the lake district and could see the mountains on the horizon. With every step the hills got closer, pretty soon we knew that we would be climbing over them.

We passed through several small villages including Cleator. Cleator is well known for its pie shop and it was around about lunch time that we passed through the village, putting the two together you can see where our thoughts were taking us, right up until we saw the sign outside… “NO PIES”. Gutted, we carried on through the village and stopped on the other side for something to eat from out packs. It kept us going, but it was no meat pie.

After lunch we made our way to the first of the big hills of the walk, we had been thinking that the hills by the sea were big and now we were going to get our first taste of a proper big hill. The hill in question is called Dent. The accent starts at the edge of Cleator and begins gently, after a little while the slope gradually begins to get steeper and steeper. After crossing a small road the path eventually winds its way through a wood where the gradient gets to its most extreme. I was feeling full of energy and vigour after lunch and decided to put my head down, not look too much at the route in front of me and just plough on. Jonny was, of course, way in the lead and he made it to a junction in the path several minutes before me. It was a good job that he noticed the path because with my head down I would have walked straight past it.

Taking the path to the left and following the sign which was for Dent Fell we carried on. The path was not as steep as it had been on the gravel path before, however this path was not so solid underfoot. It was more of a bog than a footpath and one which had over time been made into a quagmire as other walkers had trampled through the solid bits, making the entire path completely impossible to pass without sinking in at least a bit. The challenge had become how to navigate through the path while sinking in as little as possible. I was glad that I had decided to buy a pair of gaiters as my feet plunged into the murky swamp waters.

At the edge of the woodland the hill began to climb more steeply again and from here we could see on the map that it was one straight path all the way to the top. All the way back at the sea front you could see dent on the horizon and I knew that the views from the top were going to be good. I said to myself that I wasn’t going to look around until I reached the top. That was going to be my treat for getting there, to see the whole view all at once and to not spoil it by looking before the top. I kept my eyes either on the floor or on the path ahead. From the woods edge the path probably only took 15-20 minuted to climb and in all from Cleator about an hour or so, but it did seam longer than that at the time. One hill down, god knows how man to go, and here was the view from the top…

We didn’t hang around on the top of Dent, the wind was picking up and standing still was making us both sightly cold. We set off back down the other side of the hill. After a little while on the top, Dent began to slope back down at more or less the same rate in which it had sloped up. About half way back down the woodland had covered the path once more, truly a mirror of going up in nearly all respects, just without the bog. When we reached the tree line we met two cyclists who were taking a break and sheltering from the wind behind a bank on the side of the path. One of them saw me looking at my map and without saying anything gestured in one direction. Without thinking we both followed the indicated route. Five minutes later we had doubled back on ourselves and was right behind the bank which the cyclists had been sitting, furthermore there was a path which round the bank which would have saved us those five minutes. Why would anyone want to send someone off course like that? It beats me. We did not see them again so we never found out.

 The route from here to Ennerdale Bridge was most uninteresting. We walked back down through the woods on the other side of Dent. From here through a valley, sticking close to a river. It was odd that for some reason when I saw the river on the map I expected it to flow the other way to the way it did in reality, I’m not sure why. This preoccupied my thoughts until it came to climbing up the side of the valley to reach a fairly major road. This road would take us into the village of Ennerdale Bridge. Along the side of the road there was a stone circle which the guide book had said we should remark upon (even though it was a hoax), we nearly passed it without notice because it was so unremarkable.

I had suggested to Jonny that we stop for a cheeky pint in Ennerdale Bridge. I could see that he was in two minds about this right up until we reached the edge of the village. When we passed the sign welcoming us to Ennerdale Bridge a car pulled over and a voice shouted out,

“Alright lads, need somewhere to camp tonight?”

“No thanks”, I replied, “We already have somewhere booked”.

“Oh, ok then, well if you need a rest you can always stop at the Fox and Hounds for a quick pint.”

And with that the car drove off. Jonny, who was slightly ahead didn’t hear the conversation and when I repeated it to him he said that it would be rude not to go in for at lest one pint. When we arrived at the Fox and Hounds the car which had pulled over was parked outside, as it turns out, it was the landlord trying to drum up some business for the camp site in the garden of the pub. We explained to him that we were already booked into a hostel further on. He seemed slightly amazed by this but then said “Well two strong chaps like you can do it by night fall”. Most people who follow the guide books adive stop the first night in Ennerdale Bridge, we were carrying on for another 8 miles to Black Sail Hut, a hostel on the other side of Ennerdale Water. We left the pub at around Four O’Clock.

Walking round the side of Ennerdale water was, for me, the least enjoyable part of the day. It started OK but soon turned bad.I had assumed that it would be a fairly easy part of the walk, after all its going along the side of the lake, there are no contours to cross, there is bound to be a path, right? Wrong. The “path” was a collection of loose rocks which were slippery and liable to move underfoot. The level was all over the place, in many places unwalkable. Some of the rock formations which had to be climbed over were at best dangerous, especially with a heavy backpack which was liable to unbalance a person. This carried on for several miles. We had hoped to reach the Black Sail Hut by around 8 O’Clock but all the up and over, down and round of the path set us back a lot.

Fortunately the end of the lake was found and a walk through a field which was soft underfoot and most welcome. As we walked through the field we heard a rumbling, followed by barking, it got louder and louder. I couldn’t understand the rumbling until a dog leapt over a fence, followed by another and another. In all I would have said a stampede of about thirty Beagles jumped the fence in front of us, ran past and then jumped the gate which we had just come through and were gone again. At no point did we ever see any one who could have possibly been their owners. There must just be a pack of wild Beagles in Ennerdale, that is how it seamed.

After the wild dogs we passed what was going to be the last signs of civilisation until our stop for the evening. It was another youth hostel, with signs up saying, drop in for a cup of tea. As tempting as that was we knew we only had a few hours until dark fell and we had to get a move on. We passed a sign which said that we were 3¾ miles away. Now that doesn’t seem too bad. We know that its all on gravel pathways, that the going isn’t too exhausting with regards to the climb. We didn’t think about how little energy we had left though. We trudged up the path, sometimes I was in front, sometimes Jonny (a sure sign that Jonny was getting tired), the walk was getting tedious now. We had spent most of the day walking through evergreen forests and were we were on another footpath through an evergreen forest path which seemed to never end. We could see the end of the valley ahead above the trees and we knew that the hut had to be somewhere between here and there. Every time we walked around another bend we would be hopeful of finding it, but we didn’t. Time and again we’d pass a bend and only discover more trees. When we did eventually find the hut it was nestled right into the corner of the valley, out of sight, out of the wind, out of the way, it made you wonder who would have wanted to build a place this far away from civilisation anyway.

We eventually walked into the hut just as the last half an hour of light faded for the evening. We walked through the door to a round of applause, clearly it was known by all of the other guests that two more were expected and it was getting late. We were told what’s what and we went to make our beds and put our stuff down for the evening. I sat in a chair in the dormitory and just could not get up. Those last few miles had pushed me over the edge and I just didn’t want to move. I guess I was sitting there for a good quarter of an hour before I got up, made my bed and rummaged around for a tin if something to eat. That night I bought a bottle of Jennings Sneck lifter, which went down really well after a tin of meatballs. After that I went to bed, leaving some of the other hardcore walkers who were staying there to talk about their past adventures.

For anyone who doesn’t know I would impress upon you just how remote the Black Sail Hut is. Nearly four miles from the next building, only accessible by foot or with special permission of the forestry commission by one licensed land rover, which stocks the food. Electricity? Diesel generator which runs for three hours a day. Water? From the stream which runs off the hill. Communications? Walk to Ennerdale Youth Hostel and use there phone or Ennerdale Bridge for mobile reception. Heating? Bottled gas for the cooker and a log fire for the room. This place is about as basic as it gets. Even the toilet is only accessible from the outside of the building and has a note about filling the septic tank saying “If its yellow: let it mellow. If its brown: flush it down”. That being said, everyone inside is very friendly and talkative. No one feels left out unless they want to be and you are practically guaranteed a good conversation with someone, although it will almost certainly be about walking.

I had a good nights sleep at Black Sail Hut, with the exception of needing the loo in the middle of the night. This meant putting shoes on and wrapping up warm to avoid the freezing winds in the night to get to the outside loo. A small price to pay for such a nice, remote, unique hostel.