It was time for one of my infrequent backpacking trips to the Lake District. Time to put on my best smile and practice saying hello every ten minutes before visiting one of the busiest mountain areas of the UK.
It was late afternoon when I pulled into the small car park next to the community hall in Longsleddale, an isolated valley in the south-eastern Lakes. There was initially a bit of confusion as I could not find the pay and display machine into which to pour a weeks worth of wages. Instead there was a box asking for a donation of £2 a day to go towards the upkeep of the hall and public toilets, even I can’t find fault with that.
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Day 1 – 9 Kilometres with 350 metres ascent
It was warm for September, unpleasantly warm as I walked north along the lane with Reuben. I was actually worried that it may be a bit much for him as usually at the start of a walk he is very enthusiastic and pulling at the lead. That afternoon he was simply trotting alongside with his tongue hanging out like a half-formed slice of spam.
The plan for the day had been to climb onto Yoke and wild camp next to Rainsborrow Tarn, however my heart was not in for a big walk that afternoon. I decided that I would sit in the shade and examine the map for a camp spot that would not involve much effort to get to. It turns out that the bridleway that leads from Ullthwaite is not a good place for a sweaty backpacker and his hound to rest. The first mountain biker nearly ran over my leg whilst the second missed poor Reuben by inches, the third swept up a rock that just missed my head. At least I had got myself out of the way of the fourth and fifth. Bloody backpackers getting in the way eh?
I settled on a rare low-level wild camp, although I made sure that I was out of sight of any buildings and paths. The air was incredibly still and humid, perfect for the last few of the seasons midges. My shelter was dripping with condensation even before it got dark and it was a rather sweaty night where I had my sleeping bag unzipped. A fine misty drizzle fell after dark.
Day 2 – 14.5 kilometres with 1040 metres ascent
It was grey, overcast and uninspiring when I woke up, even the lower fells were hidden under a thick duvet of clouds. I did my favourite backpacking thing which involves turning over and going back to sleep for a few hours. When I had eventually finished making brews, having breakfast and packing it was gone midday. Slackpacking at its finest.
I picked a totally rubbish way up Sour Howes that involved tussocks, deep rushes and bogs. Once at the top I could not decide which of the numerous lumps and bumps was the true summit. I therefore visited all of them, from each one the others looked to be higher. It was then a case of following the ridge round to Sallows which was just beginning to lose its cap of cloud. It was along the way that for the first time Reuben met another Staffy on the hill, it was having a great time bounding along with a couple of fell runners.
The cloud suddenly dissipated on the ascent of Yoke, melting away to reveal extensive views under a soft light. The rollercoaster of a route north over Ill Bell and Froswick was a delight, only spoilt by the overly manicured path that in places is more suited to a city park.
I was surprised to have the hills to myself, perhaps people had been put off by the low cloud. After a late start and unhurried walk I was reaping the rewards by being on the hills during the late afternoon, the sun working its way towards the horizon. The fells were taking on a purple hue, shafts of sunlight occasionally piercing the broken clouds.
I enjoyed the high level contour round the head of Kentmere, working a way round to drop down to the Nan Bield Pass on a narrow path. Harter Fell was the last hill of the day and I fancied camping on its summit. However the wind was too strong and the ground parched, the upper reaches of the stream had dried up a long time ago.
We descended down into Wren Gill, locating a reasonably flat spot on a spur above the watercourse. It was dark by the time I had pitched the Wickiup and collected water. The shorter days of early Autumn had nearly caught me out.
Day three – 17.5 kilometres with 450 metres ascent
The night was cold and clear, stars filling the sky when I poked my head out in the middle of the night. It was even colder at dawn and my shelter was dripping with condensation. I watched the shadows gradually recede and waited for the warm sun to reach us before getting out of my sleeping bag. The sky was a deep blue without a cloud to be seen.
Being released from the confines of the shelter into warm sunshine made Reuben a very happy dog.
It was a tiring contour around steep slopes to get to the summit of Adam Seat before descending to Gatescarth Pass. Haweswater gave a good backdrop, leading the eye out of the Lake District and towards the North Pennines.
I originally had grand plans to go and bag Selside, a Nuttall that still eludes me. However after the short afternoon walk on the first day I was now too far behind schedule. Instead I headed south towards the car, taking in the summit of Tarn Crag with its distinctive stone pillar.
There then followed a grand walk south over the silent and empty fells that form the eastern boundary of Longsleddale. I met one couple and saw another in the distance that hot and sunny Sunday afternoon. It felt like we were in the Howgills rather than the Lake District. The various ups and downs felt much more than the map suggested, not helped by the lack of running water. I had to drop down on one occasion to ensure that both Reuben and I remained hydrated.
The last hill of the day was Whiteside Pike, guarded from the north by a drystone wall with no gate or stile. I eventually found a tumble-down section, probably in that state due to there being no gate or stile to help access.
The summit is marked by a tall and precarious looking cairn that is much more sturdy than it appears. It was a good spot to rest before descending back to the road and the long slog back to the car.