Getting there

Lynda had signed up for a work-related conference in Nottingham England so we looked for a way to extend the visit with a vacation trip for the two of us. We’d had a great hiking holiday with Ramblers in Morocco the previous year, so we checked their catalogue...and found the perfect week’s hiking trip in the Lake District that fitted in just before the conference.

We arrived at Heathrow Friday, May 1st; stayed overnight in a B&B on Hampstead Heath and took a noon train out of Euston the next day. Took a bus and cab at the other end, staggering in to Hassness Lodge right on Buttermere (Lake) just in time for the evening meal.

Author's note: One thing you may wish to keep in mind as you read below, is that for all the whingeing about the weather we had, and the fact that it turned a slight snivel at the beginning of the week into a cold that laid me out for five days in the week following, we'd go back and do it all over again in a minute!

The Lake District

More photos here

It's stunningly beautiful...providing you don't mind a little rain. The Lake District nestles in the northwest corner of England butting up against coastline to the west and the border with Scotland to the north. It’s named for the lakes filling the valleys between long mountain ridges; hikers would probably rename it The Peak District. Yet compared with the jagged, forested mountains of our Canadian home terrain, these are open, treeless, grassy ridges over which even the average walker can ramble for miles, and gain spectacular views in all directions...well, weather permitting. Such friendly hills don’t lack challenge: most rise between two and three thousand feet out of the valleys; the sometimes craggy ridges include many of the highest points in England and even the nimble sheep that roam these hills sometimes have to be rescued by the local search and rescue team.

The valleys too are varied: some are broad, agricultural areas—green flatlands of sheep and dairy farms threaded with the occasional river, a road perhaps, and sentinel villages—others are narrow, v-shaped corridors with steep brown and green hillsides on either side, marked here and there by silver streams that gather in quick running brooks along the valley bottom.

In the northwest of this northwest district is our destination, a valley that shelters not one but two narrow lakes end to end. A low green pasture about quarter of a mile square divides the northernmost and larger of these—Crummock Water, about four miles in length—from Buttermere, which is about two miles long. If the water was two feet deeper there would be only one continuous lake. The village of Buttermere sits on the dividing parcel. A second valley—the Newlands valley of which more later—angles in here almost at right angles bringing a fast stream along its bottom and the road from Penrith a little higher up.

Just over a mile down Buttermere from the village (note: not far from the pub!) lies Hassness lodge, now a permanent haven for Ramblers hiking groups.

Lynda, myself, and eighteen other stalwarts formed the group. Our companions came from all over: a couple from Nevada, a retired professor from Boston, a property manager from Halifax Nova Scotia and the rest from various parts of England. Our guide, Brian, from nearby Yorkshire, provided us over the course of our week a brilliant pickle of information about the weather, gills, cairns, tarns, fells, crags, pikes, and other features of the local countryside.

Sunday: Haystacks and Fleetwith Pike

Our days started with a sturdy breakfast in the dining room at 8:30am; an hour later we’d packed our gear and lunches, donned our boots and were ready to roam. We head out the door; this first day the skies were clear but it was brisk as we headed across the fields. Our first hike took us around the south end of Buttermere through green fields filled with sheep and newborn lambs, then up a steep hillside opposite the lodge. Within an hour we having a break at a notch called Scarth Gap, about a fifteen hundred feet above our starting point and with fine views back over the lake and lodge behind.

These first few hours have an undercurrent of anxiety. Those of us relatively new to hiking with groups are trying to suss out exactly how we're going to stand up this week. But there's an added element of quiet competitiveness among the front-runners. Unfortunately, we were all vying for second place: the 60 year old woman from Nevada had done a marathon in London the week before and used to go for 5 mile run around the lake BEFORE we started hiking each day! So when we reach the first ridge there's already a division of groups. Those arriving first are all pleased with themselves; those in the middle probably don't care; and those at the back are already thinking this might be a tough week. But the nice thing about Ramblers is that nobody is left out and there'll be plenty of breaks.

On a clear day like that first one the open terrain afforded spectacular views over the lakes and neighbouring peaks. We were able to look back and admire the serene panorama of Buttermere and the Lodge, with Robinson rising behind it and other peaks and valleys rolling away behind that. These are the views that we came for and it is truly worth it but when Bill (the other Canuck) caught up with us, he gave us some sobering news: he loved the Lake District so much that this was his third trip in three years...but this was the first day that he'd seen the views!

After a short break we headed higher, over Haystacks: a series of three rocky crags taking us up to about two thousand five hundred feet. From here we could first look out over to the adjacent Ennesdale Valley, and Pillar Rock, the high point almost directly opposite.

From Haystacks we came down a little onto a kind of high meadow, with Brandreth, our furthest destination today only a quarter mile off and the high peaks of Green Gable and Great Gable a mile or so beyond. We had lunch by a small tarn (pond) then reached Brandreth with an easy walk and took a quick stop to admire the views; we couldn't quite make out Scafell Pike, the highest point in England, to the South. We turned left and made Grey Notts, then left again, heading towards Fleetwith Pike and home.

Don't you love all those names? It seems as though every rock and puddle up here has a name—and each of these names suggests a story.

We pause by an old slate quarry for a view down into Honiston pass before the short climb up to the top of Fleetwith—bigger than it looked for legs that are a bit tired now. But from the top of Fleetwith we are rewarded by a panoramic view, with the valley and the welcoming sight of the lodge below. And whoa! that really is below! We make a sharp descent down Fleetwith's rocky spine, plunging almost directly towards the lake itself. Fortunately there's an ice cream van waiting for us! Legionaires returning from the desert might not have greeted the vendor with more enthusiasm. A mile later, we were home: hiked about 7 miles; up and down a total of about 3300 feet.

Buttermere and Fleetwith Pike from Red Pike

Monday: Sail, Craig Hill and Whiteless Pike

Overnight, the weather has undergone a “Lake District change” and it is cold and windy with dark clouds hiding the ridges. Although clearer skies are promised for later it doesn't look good: rain looks imminent. Our guide Brian is thinking we could take the low path along Newlands valley and hope by the time we reached the end the cloud would lift to afford a worthwhile trek along the ridge coming back. Causey Pike (lunch) can be located on the map above to the right and slightly above Buttermere; Whiteless Pike lies roughly on the line between Buttermere and Grassmoor.

We set out along the path to Buttermere, entered the village, crossed the bridge, and turned off up a path alongside the stream coming down Newlands valley on our right. After a five minute hike through the woods we climbed a stile to arrive on open hillside and a fork in the trail: to the left the path the we would later come down headed straight up Whiteless Pike (in cloud just then). To our right a lower path stretched off along the valley for miles. We took this lower trail for about an hour, trekking along the solid green bank sloping steeply up to our left; below us, on the right the stream and beyond that half way up the opposite wall of the valley, we could see traffic buzzing along the road to Penrith and Keswick.

We moved along, climbing steadily but the wind picked up and gradually specks of rain became a what seemed to be a light drizzle, yet our packs and ponchos were soaded within minutes. We added layers at each stop until we began a sharper ascent to the clouds. Now the exercise began to add perspiration from the inside to the moisture from without. At the col between Causey Pike and Craig Hill we stopped and hunkered down for lunch. The rain had let up and the cloud seemed to be thinning a little. Then suddenly we could see glimpses over to Grisedale Pike about a mile away, and to valleys and fells perhaps ten miles distant.

We now headed back along the top of this ridge, Newlands Valley on our left and this morning's trail below us. But this was no flat ridge, and we had to begin with a stiff climb up further towards Sail. The clouds lifted as we moved up eventually revealing the trail ahead over a series of daunting higher crags. By the time we reached Sail blue sky had started to appear but it offered no relief from a stiff cold wind that now cracked our ponchos. After another drop and climb to Craig Hill we could finally see the complete drop leading down Whiteless Pike and back into the distant village of Buttermere. Another half hour or so (during which time, a couple of runners appeared out of nowhere and sped past us) we arrived back in village just as a herd of cows crossed the road; they were lucky to escape unscathed from passing between thirsty hikers and the pub.

Sheep

Sheep are everywhere in the Lake District. At this time of year, the green low-lying fields are filled with ewes and newborn lambs (some obviously only minutes old). But the fences must be made of cobwebs, for there are sheep on the roads, sheep in the lawns and gardens, and most of all, sheep in the hills. A goodly throng of these, like woolly beatniks, spurn the comforts of lowland living and taking to the high and hinterland. We came across them in fog and rain munching away on the moss in crags and bogs. Surprisingly, we were told that these hobo-sheep sometimes wander onto ledges from where they have to be retrieved by the ever vigilant rescue teams in the area. There’s hardly a minute goes by in the Lake District—whether in the dead of night or coming up on some lonesome tarn in a rainstorm—you can’t hear the eerie tenor of a sheep complaining about the weather.

Tuesday: Robinson for the Few

It was really raining on Tuesday morning. This was supposed to be our day of rest so the people with any sense at all (including Lynda) made plans to sightsee in this Longfellow and Beatrix Potter country. The philistines had planned to take on Scafell Pike, the highest point in England, but in such inclement weather the danger of getting lost in unfamiliar terrain would not be compensated by panoramic views, so we adjusted our sights and set out to conquer Robinson, the short sharp peak behind the lodge.

We were a bit concerned about our lack of knowledge of this local area. It wasn’t difficult to imagine missing the right path through a bog up on the plateau in low cloud and ending up in Sweden. We took a map reading and figured a key turn-off would be at compass reading 245. Thus it was that the five of us became known as the ‘245 Club’, which put that number to profitable use once at least, for we never did use it later.

We crossed the road opposite the lodge, hiked up through a small copse and came quickly out below open hillside. Now we’re heading up and in fifteen minutes, after a short run alongside a small stream plunging out of a deep gill, we climb out beside the gully and onto an extremely steep hillside directly above the lodge. By now, the gloves are clearly off with the competitive spirit as there is no guide and group behind us to wait for. Besides since it is freezing cold, with only the peak to conquer before we can relax in the pub, the race is definitely on. We followed the boundary fence up a thousand feet, and over a lip to where the trail continues into a plateau; the bog to our left—Robinson itself still higher and barely visible.

By now anything cheerful about the day had vanished. The valley and the lodge with it had disappeared behind us and we were now on a bleak plateau, hiking over sodden ground up into cloud and increasingly dismal weather. A group of youth hostel hikers who seemed to have lost their way, appeared out of the mist and followed us for a while but no-one spoke. Our mixed groups followed the fence up for about quarter of a mile until it turned sharply right, heading across to Dale Head, and the other group disappeared in that direction; we clambered over the fence and headed left to where we expected to find (at heading 245) the trail heading down. Fat chance! On this now stony ground, the map reading proved useless: direction was easy when the cloud lifted but finding the trail among a dozen possible routes was the problem. I stayed to see if I could find the trail while the others headed a little higher to "bag the peak" and have lunch. I finally spotted a faint line a quarter of a mile down where the trail cut into the bog, and headed up to join the others at the cairn marking the top of Robinson.

We're in cloud and as if it wasn’t already cold enough, the wind was beginning to howl and bring a soaking rain. So we needed little encouragement to finish lunch quickly and head down. Keeping the pub as a mental beacon we skirted the bog losing the trail several times but used the faint outline of it emerging on the distant hillside as a guide. Would that we were as nonchalant as the sheep scattered here and there across this desolate scene. When we reached the far side, a sharp left turn revealed a clear path plunging straight down to Buttermere village with the road below. Unfortunately, it also seemed to expose us again to the brutal gale and my Tilley hat blew off. I yelled to the others to meet me in the village, and plunged down the hillside over moss, and grass, scattering sheep as I went. I finally had to make a tricky descent down the side of a gully to rescue it from a ledge in a small gill. This took longer than I'd imagined and I took some flack from the group when I got to the pub, as they were starting to think about a search party. But they would probably have had a couple of healing rounds first.

Wednesday: Borrowdale Valley

Wednesday: another grim weather day, this time with nothing in the forecast to suggest sunshine later. So Brian suggested a low level hike across the Borrowdale valley, one of the broader valleys with a green expanse of plain at least a mile across; it includes a river, a road and even the occasional village.

Our hike began with a drive out to the village of Seatoller Cottages. We parked in a lane, hiked across some fields then up and over a low hill range in mid valley. We entered a small village by a pond and had a short break here at a tea shop where we fed chaffinches by hand. Then we were off again, rambling along low hillsides, across rivers and low marshes, around through woodland and field—a very pleasant day, covering perhaps 11 miles and about one thousand feet of total climbing.

Thursday: Crummock Water

Another ugly day, and several people, including Lynda and I, begged off this one. The Robinson trip had (no surprise for the intelligent) reversed the improvement in a cold that had dogged me from Canada and we both spent the day reading in the reading room. At one point, the wind in the valley was so strong that it was shredding new leaves off the trees below and plastering the lodge windows with the tattered pieces of green. Those who went on the hike said that it hadn’t been too bad at the other end of the valley and one of the non-hikers had driven over to the coast that day and reported bright sunshine there!

Friday: Red Pike and High Stile

Our last day of hiking opened miserably and ended well.

We awoke on our last Friday morning to yet another wet, windy day; the clouds were low and dark. But poor weather had defeated our ambitions for much of the week and it was time to fight back. This was our last opportunity to take on something higher with a hope for views so we opted to try for the ridge on the other side of Buttermere.

We had looked out on this high ridge across from the lodge all week, as it peeked out from beneath shifting cloud. From the warmth and bravado of the reading room, we had boasted of an easy conquest but the soaking reality as we headed out that morning was less cheering.

Passing (reluctantly) by the pubs in Buttermere village, we crossed the parcel of land separating the two lakes and headed up a steep zig zag on the northwest end of Buttermere. We gained about a thousand feet in about an hour, taxing legs tired by six days of hiking, the view of the lake behind us becoming increasingly murky as we ascended; an isolated clump of trees provided welcome shelter for our first rest. We continued up and arrived soon in a hollow between two peaks—Red Pike to our right, and High Stile to our left—with Bleaberry Tarn, a small, picturesque (we imagined) pool about fifty meters across. By this time we were in the cloud…which was probably just as well for we were only half way, our destination height thankfully invisible in the swirling gloom around us!

The footing changed to scree—a slope of broken rock and slate—but our progress was thankfully aided by a trail construction effort: a staircase of large rocks carved into the steep hillside. As we slogged on up into the gloom the wind picked up bringing increasing drizzle…a combo that we were now quite used to. The constructed path gave out too requiring us to scramble over loose rocks and around crags for another twenty minutes.

our bedgraggled group arrived finally at the cairn that declared we were at the top of Red Pike, but for all we could see around us we might have been in the middle of London! Time for lunch. We all found cover here and there from the cold wind and rain; Lyn and I hid behind a mossy knoll and ate lunch.

We headed out again, picking our way along the sheep fencing marking the edge of High Stile: a long high ridge that supposedly gave spectacular views over Buttermere from the side opposite the lodge. At this point we couldn't see much further than our feet but suddenly, a shout from one of the group looking down brought the curious over to the edge, and there, looking down through a deep gulley, and we could suddenly glimpse lake and lodge through the shifting cloud below. Within half an hour the cloud had lifted higher and we could see in all directions, although the higher peaks were still hidden.

Watery sunshine broke through above as we came to our descent down a very steep and stepped incline to connect with our destination route up from last Sunday at Scarth Gap. The Haystacks were right in front of us and realizing that this was our last hike a few of us opted for one last short climb to the top before we turned and followed the main group home.

Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday:The Pub!

It is only a walk of about a mile or so from Hassness Lodge to the village. We usually took the path along the lake going there and made our way back (in darkness) along the road a bit higher up the hillside. I couldn’t detect a major difference between the two pubs available (this in a village of about five houses) but there seemed to be an unvoiced preference for the Fish rather than the Bridge. The Fish was jammed on Saturday night and we ended up at the bar in the Bridge for the first night but for the rest of the week we enjoyed such rare brews as “Piscatorial Bitter”, “Old Peculiar” and my own favourite, the dark and mysterious Beamish Ale at the Fish.

On Friday night, we went down as a group for our final get together. At breakfast on Saturday, we presented the staff with gifts and appreciations, and suddenly, the week was over.

As a footnote, Lyn attended the conference in Nottingham, while I spent the week in bed trying to recover from my cold!