Checking the weather forecast does not change things. It’s not because it’s not accurate – in fact, the mountain weather forecast provided by the youth hostel was amazingly correct. It’s because a holiday like this has to be booked weeks in advance. Even if the weather forecast said it would be raining knife blades, we would have to go anyway. We just never truly realised how blessed we were in all our previous Lake District trips in terms of weather. It showed us its true colours this time. Do you know why the Lake District is such a perfect place for sheep farming? Why thousands of sheep munch on this land without ever worrying about finishing the grass off? Because it rains!
I struggled a bit in the morning to actually put my 85 litre rucksack on my back AND stand up. I remembered Cheryl in Wild and laughed. My husband hurt his back the week before and moaned about carrying 65 litres as well as me having to carry more than he did. The waist belt dug into my bones and left bruises.
We discovered a new way into the Lakes. It was nothing new, we just never considered it somehow. We took a train from Newcastle all the way to Ravenglass along the west coast, surveying the Irish Sea and drifting between dreams. It took about the same time to go to Keswick or Glenridding via Penrith, but it requires less changes of transport. You could also finish the travel with the cute narrow gauge steam railway from Ravenglass to Dalegarth, which was right in the Eskdale valley.
We found YHA Eskdale and liked it straightaway. A tipi gave it an exotic holiday feeling. Two small camping areas were linked by a wooden bridge over a stream. There was a bright and airy porch with comfy chairs, a lounge with sofas (where later on we found ourselves most of the time…), a hot drying room (stinky and humid the next day), a clean, well-organised and well-equipped self-catering kitchen. No internet signal or WIFI. It was a lovely place!
The sky cleared and we were showered in a golden sunset. Husband picked a spot for our tent, which later on proved to be a wise choice – not too close to the ever-rising stream, not on low ground with soaking grass. We were able to put the tent up in minutes, we always did, about which I was secretly very proud. (A great Vaude!)
We tried something new for dinner this time. Instead of bringing ingredients and cooking from scratch, we brought frozen leftover sausage stew and rice. It worked really well. The frozen lunch boxes acted like ice blocks in a freezer bag all day and went straight into the fridge when we arrived the youth hostel. It was ready in minutes in a microwave oven (or you can use a saucepan).
I spent the evening reading The Shepherd’s Life. It was about shepherds in the Lake District. A wonderful and fitting book!
The stream roared but that wasn’t what stopped us from sleeping. It was freezing! I had full pyjamas, a hoodie on top, thick socks, and a thick wool hat. My sleeping bag was the same one my husband used as a scout 15 years ago. My husband’s sleeping bag cost about 15 pounds. Replacements will be on our Christmas wishlist. I also had this worried thought that cars were going to drive into our tent because we were completely invisible in the dark. No one did.
Is there a more annoying thing than a rainy night in a tent? Yes. Having to go to the toilet in a rainy night in a tent…
With my husband’s back still stiff and painful, we didn’t attempt Bowfell or Scafell Pike. We were rained in all morning anyway. We set off for Harter’s Fell but stopped and headed down at about 200m. If husband’s back decided to play up, there was no way I could get him down. And I didn’t want to leave him there (not this time at least lol). We got the only bit of phone reception during our whole time here for about 30 seconds on a southeastern slope. I also had a glimpse of the grandeur summit of Scafell Pike through drifting clouds, waving a hello and goodbye, knowing there was no way we could do it this time. The stony paths were slippery, the grass was sodden and every tiny stream of water rose to be rivers making every crossing extremely risky. Thankfully we got back to Penny Hill Farm with no major issues, except my dripping bottom from sitting down on a patch of boggy grass (unintentionally).
I also found out fairly quickly after we started that my walking boots were not waterproof anymore, even from just walking in wet grass. When I peeled socks off at the end of the day, the skin on my feet was white and wrinkly like when they’re soaked in the bath for too long.
At least the night was dry.
Rain persisted regardless.
We headed towards Dalegarth station and discovered that husband’s waterproof coat was soaked through in less than 30 minutes. Sheltering in the train station café having a headache, that must be the lowest point of our trip. (I blame the lighting in the café.) I couldn’t help thinking four days of annual leave were wasted. I might as well be in the office! But then I remembered James Rebanks, the author of The Shepherd’s Life said, shepherds and locals love the land (including the weather) like loving a wife, for better for worse, while tourists only love the Lake District when it’s fine. It’s true. But locals got to stay with the “wife” all year round, I can’t!
When the drizzle eased, we walked along the River Esk. The stepping stones were completely under water. I saw a silver ribbon threading up mountain ahead of us from miles away. That was the first sight of one of the most challenging roads in Britain, Hardknott Pass. We walked up it, worrying about cars passing each other with a struggling tyre noise on this single track road which had a maximum gradient of 33% and slippery with days of rain. But at that point, we couldn’t see its full glory because of the otherworldly nothingness created by low cloud.
We climbed up to the Roman Fort in thick fog and dared not run around too faraway lest we never find each other again. The fort’s walls were mostly intact and it had a couple of ruins of bigger stone buildings for important people and food storage. All the smaller wooden buildings for solders were gone. There was also a grand bath house left to our amazement, a cold room, a warm room, a hot room AND a sauna! Romans clearly loved their baths.
Suddenly I spotted a shadow of a giant, right opposite me, much bigger than the ruins (even when they were in full height), with a huge head and massive shoulders. I was instantly transported back to King Arthur’s time, or into Lord of the Rings. There were no tarmac roads, no cars, no sound. Only the faint shadow of a Roman ruin behind me. I held tight my pink walking stick and prepared to fight for my life. Time froze for a few seconds.
Wind blew in from the sea and the fog was lifted. A craggy hill top was revealed under the blue sky – not a giant after all. It was such an amazing view. The Hardknott Pass raced passed us and extended all the way up up up towards the sky. I was speechless looking on and on, marvelling at the wonder of God’s creation. I imagined God smiling a little or giving me a wink, saying “not bad isn’t it.”
Herdwick lambs trotted away from us, shaking their chubby bottoms, incredibly cute. It was hard to resist the temptation to run after them. I came downhill with a full heart, not grumbling about weather anymore.
However, the worst was still to come. We had a pleasant chat over dinner with a young German couple who had attempted and were defeated by Scafell Pike earlier on in the day without a map (!). After saying goodnight, we noticed it was blowing a gale with fat water drops lashing on the window as well as our tent. There was a storm. We sat in the porch speechlessly and unbelievably. The shepherd book was open on my lap but I didn’t take a single glance at it, staring blankly out into the dark, cold, stormy night.
Husband went out for a quick inspection and came back drenched, reporting that the tent looked OK apart from flapping about. After a bit more worrying and faffing, we settled on the thought that if we were flooded, the worst was to come in and sleep on the sofa. Out we went and in we dived into our small cocoon – surprisingly dry inside despite the roaring wind and gun-shot sounds of the downpour.
It was windy but the sun came out. A glorious morning. I imagined myself standing on top of Bowfell and walking on the ridge towards Crinkle Crags.
Instead, we had to pack up the sleeping bags, mats and tent, put on the soggy boots, bag my wet trousers and socks and head home. I sat motionlessly on a bench on the platform of the homebound train station, drinking in the view of the valley in the morning sun, and nearly cried. This was the end of our short visit to the Lakes!
“But there will be other years, other visits… The hills will wait.” Farewell.