Friday, August 22, 2014

C2C Day 2: Ennerdale YHA to Borrowdale

We woke up from a really deep sleep refreshed and ready to go.  It's always amazing how the act of sleeping erases the majority of your aches and pains from the previous day.  I felt fine and ready to go- my ankles were a bit puffy but that seemed to be the only ill effect.  

Because we hiked 6 miles further up the trail then most, we only had 10 miles to do on this day.  Which was good, because the hostel was a bit slow getting breakfast rolling.  Granted, it was a small operation with only two people cooking breakfast for 12 people, we would have skipped out if we needed to get an earlier start.  It was a really lovely hostel though, and waking up in the valley with nothing but chattering birds and the distant babble of the creek and the wind in the trees made for a fantastic morning.   The breakfast wasn't half bad, either, and we carb-loaded and caffeinated and graciously accepted our packed lunches of sandwiches, fruit, crisps and a juice box.

Another freakishly beautiful day, and it was going to be a hot one.  This is supposed to be the rainiest bit of England.  How disappointing!

A smart decision was made- we could have taken an unmarked high route right away and climbed up to Red Pike, High Stile and Hay Stacks fells, or we could stay low by the river.  The advantage was that our climb for the day would be over right away, as once you are up on the ridge you would stay there for miles and rejoin the Coast to Coast route near the top of Loft Beck.

Thankfully my reasoning  to stay low won, and you'll see why this is important in a moment.  

 But really now.  Can you believe this is England?  I couldn't.  I kept thinking I was somewhere in the American West.

We walked down the quiet forest path, zigged where we should have zagged once again, but found a really beautiful stream, and behold!  

A perfectly clear swimming hole, secluded from the trail and beckoning a refreshing plunge!

Even though we were only a mile up the trail, Bry decided to strip down and go for a dip.  I just settled to soak my feet- that water was frigid.

At this point, a series of events happened that could have ruined our day.

After he hopped out and dried off, Bry was putting his shorts back on and managed to dump his pockets.  His phone went directly into the drink with a plonk.  As he scrambled down the rock to retrieve it, it triggered something in his head- he had forgotten the other phone and the charger back at the hostel.  Wait, I saw something else follow his phone into the pool.  We searched and didn't see anything else, but I could have sworn that I saw something smaller follow his phone in.  Finally, I realized that it must have been his beach pebble from St Bees, and he agreed.  We saw a small black pebble sitting on a rock ledge that didn't look like the rest, and I went back in my camera photos to confirm that yes, that was indeed the pebble in question.

The wet phone sadly disassembled and airing out on a towel, he grabbed a water bottle and hiking poles and ran back down the trail to retrieve the left property.  Mind you, there is no cell signal at all in the Lake District- these gorgeous hillsides are not marred by cell towers at all.  Still, having the OS maps with GPS on the phone had saved our asses several times in the past, and they are also our only timekeeping abilities.  Hiking relying on phones and gadgets is always risky and nothing will ever replace a detailed map and compass, and we're not one of those people who are always on our phones...but still.  We wanted our phone back.

I got to sit and knit with my feet in the ice cold stream for the next half hour, knitting and congratulating myself on not taking the high road, where who knows at what point he would have remembered the forgotten phone.

Finally, he returned.  My ankles nice and de-kankled, I dried off and booted up and hit the trail, now much later than I thought we would be.  The fact that we had a six mile jump ahead of the crowd was now lost, and the coming fell climb was well-defined by the slow progress of many making their way up the switchbacks.

But look, Herdwick sheep!  The lovely hardy Beatrix Potter sheep exclusive to the Lake District.  These sheep are the only breed that thrives in high elevations and harsh climates of the area.  Today seemed a bit too tropical for them to be comfortable though.

We approached the end of Ennerdale valley under some pretty heavy afternoon heat.

The most famous YHA hostel on the trail is the tiny off-the-grid Black Sail at mile 24.  

They have their doors open for hikers to fill up their water and an honor system for snack and sodas.  It's an adorable and rustic place, and if I could have finagled it, we would have broke up the hike so we could have stayed here.

After a quick break and a nap in the sun, we were picked our way through the boggy valley and started up the steep Loft Beck, a 2000' climb that lead up to Honister crag.  That was just brutal in the heat.

The climb was strenuous, but rewarding as hell once you got to the top.   We bumped into two men, sitting a little off the trail with binoculars watching the peak across the valley.  A quick stop to catch our breath and chat revealed they had a group of kids on their first rough camping experience (we found out later, most of them were less than enthusiastic about this) that they check on stealthily from higher vantage points to make sure all was well.  It kind of seemed like an Outward Bound program, but we wished them luck in their teenager wrangling, and pushed on to the top.

We saw threatening clouds on the other side of the valley, but the cloud cover we got was providing us with some much-needed shade.  There are not a lot of trees up here.

We decided to stop trailside to have lunch but we were promptly annoyed and driven off by a group of about 8, aging, out-of-shape Texans who were with a guide and waiting for struggling members of their party to make it up the hill.  They proceeded to surround us and yell back and forth to each other, and to their guide and friends who were well down the mountain.  Then, they took out their Iphones to record videos and loudly narrate how badly they were suffering, and then wrongly point out the direction of the trail and complain how tired and miserable they were and how their hired guide was torturing them.  All this while hoovering directly over us, and not at all responding to my "fuck off" death glare that I reserve for these occasions.  It's nature, shut up and enjoy it or stay home.  

I put my boots back on, shoved my half-eaten sandwich in my pack, and we pushed on to find a more peaceful spot well away from the trail.  After about ten minutes, the bored Texans wandered off the trail and decided to have a sit on the same rock we were on, ignoring us as they continued yammering and shouting to each other at great distance and complaining about how if they only knew how hard this was they wouldn't have signed up for it and JUST GO AWAY.  I was about to push some fat Texans off the side of a mountain now, and for a second time, we picked up and moved to get the hell away from them.  Granted, you meet plenty of nice people on the trail and we made lots of trail friends whom we would encounter day after day and have friendly chats with, they are usually pleasant and happy to be in the hills, and blissfully tired from the adventures and they aren't total asshats.  It ruined my mood for all of seven minutes, but we found yet an even better spot on the fell-top to have lunch.        

Views of Ennderdale and Buttermere were to be had, and more of the lovely Lake District.   Occasionally, a fighter plane would break the silence and zoom down the valley: they use this area to train their air force pilots.

The colors were lovely- the fell tops were forlorn and empty, with a surprising amount of open space for a mountain top.  Once you make the climb up, you could connect the footpaths and hike the fells pretty much forever, and good navigation skills are needed to find the correct trail as we hadn't seen a trail waymark since leaving the hostel.

The descent was fairly easy, but going downhill always takes me the longest as I carefully pick my way down.  This followed an old mining tramway, and you could see the slate mines in the hills as we made our way down Honister Pass to Honister Mine.

It's a museum and a shop, and if we had the time I would have stopped for the tour of the gussied-up slate mines as it seemed worthwhile.  Instead, we took advantage of the ice cream they sold, and hit the trail for an easy four miles to get to the Borrowdale YHA.

It was a perfectly pleasant afternoon stroll in the hills, passing quaint little hamlets tucked in snugly any place a flat bit of ground was found.   These were former mining communities, and there were many quaint little b&bs to be found among them.

Finally, we hit Borrowdale with plenty of sunlight left in the sky.  This was a much bigger hostel than the previous, and very efficiently run, but no less charming.  Even if you are not staying here, the trail runs through their yard and they had a nice cafe and streamside picnic tables.  It had tent camping and camping pods along with a big bunk house and communal showers.  We once again were able to get a private room, which is worth the money to have at least a little privacy.  I took advantage of their amazing drying room and did our laundry (because there is nothing more demoralizing than putting on dirty clothes in the morning) and we sat out by the River Derwent before dinner with a drink to have a rare moment of relaxation.  

I pulled out the Reverso socks that I had brought along.  The yarn I chose was fell-colored, and this was totally a happy accident!

It was a friendly, happy hostel filled with tired hikers, and we chatted up a few families that we met at the previous nights' YHA and a few people we saw along the trail during the day.  A lot of Brits and a handful of Aussies and Germans seem to make up the majority.  But it was totally our people- outdoorsy types who weren't so fussy that they don't mind bunk beds at the end of the day.  Once again, the food was excellent(!) and the people who worked there were helpful and jovial.  We stocked up on Kendal Mint Cake and went down to the creek for a post-dinner foot soak in the river.   

The short day of hiking was a nice change of pace- even with the late start, Bry having to double back and add more than two miles to his day, and the leisurely pace, it was nice to have time to relax at the end of the day before tipping over for 8 hours in the bunks.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

C2C Day 1: St Bees to Ennerdale

And so it begins.

We decided to get an earlier start than the train that stopped in at St Bees allowed, and left a eerily quiet Carlisle to take the first train to Whitehaven so we could hit the trail before 9am.  This was going to be a big day: I couldn't find accommodation on the trail until the Ennerdale Hostel and that was 20 miles from the trailhead.  Ideally, we would have gotten moving at sunup, but we just decided to deal and we were prepared for a long day.

The train ride from Carlisle followed the coastline, with views of the Isle of Man and the Dumfries in Scotland under a blazing blue sky.  Whitehaven is notable because it was the locale of the furthest-flug battle in the American Revolutionary War.  John Paul Jones, a Scotsman, showed up to sink the harbored merchant ships docked here, failed at that and burned the town instead.  Today, it's rebuilt in orderly Manhattan-like grids, and it's a fairly large town.  Big enough so that there are cabs waiting at the train station, and for 10 quid the friendly cabbie brought us to the trailhead at St Bees.

There's a small cafe at the beach.  We ordered sandwiches and parked ourselves on a log on the beach without looking too hard at our surroundings and ended up sitting about six feet away from a dead porpoise.  Ah, the seaside.  Also, the most appetizing sandwich on the menu was cheese and tomato and they used shredded cheese and not only is it fairly disgusting but also impossible to eat without losing huge clumps of cheese and they didn't even bother to grill it, which would have at least made it still together more.  Bry didn't have much better luck- whatever he ordered, he basically got a grease-slicked sponge to try and digest.

Still.  Sustenance.  And a sunny day.  I am in heaven.

And here we go...

As tradition dictates, we picked our way down to the pebble beach and put our boots in the sea...

...and then carefully picked our pebbles to carry with us deposit at Robin Hood's Bay (one day).

The first four miles of the walk follows the edge of the dramatic cliffside of St Bees Head, with gorgeously endless views.  The trail also disconcertingly heads west for a few miles: your end destination is over your shoulder for the first bit.

We headed out with a guy from Yorkshire and a South African: old friends, wanting to do their first long-distance trail together.  They were soon huffing and asking to see our maps: was there a trail that didn't go quite so close to the cliff edge?

No.  There is not.

Even at our slow pace, we were soon quite far ahead, and wished them luck on their journey.

Move, sheep.

 There were lots of hides and blinds to check out the wildlife, as the cliffs are nesting sites for sand martins, guillemots, razorbills, and the elusive puffin.  Soon, the racket of nesting birds and the stench of guano wafted off the cliffs, giving us flashbacks of the train ride yesterday.


a Rock pippit

Past the lighthouse, and lots of cows.

What a fantastic way to start a walk!  Worth the extra miles going in the wrong direction.  

 Finally, the trail turned inland, passed an Unexpected Ostrich by the sea:

...and down a quiet track with views of the looming fells of the Lake District on the horizon, the first of which in the foreground would be conquered on this day.

 Seven Miles in, a roadside monument to the man and the trail.  184 miles to go!  Obligatory photo taken.

One of the charms and challenges of the Coast to Coast is that it is rarely, and inconstantly waymarked.  You have to be able to read a map and compass to get through- since it is not an "official" route, it is just a bunch of strung-together footpaths.

This first day, we did cut through a few small, tidy towns.  We were able to get stop in to some pubs to fill up our water bottles and we definitely didn't get any pies.  

Once we got through the orderly little town of Cleador, we began our first real climb of Dent Fell.

To our back we could see the Irish Sea and St Bees, with the Isle of Man and the mountains of Scotland in the distance.

It wasn't a hard climb, but it was hot out.  I was glad we had stop for a water refill when we did as we were going through a lot more water than we had on previous hikes.

A quick stop for lunch at the top and we were back on the trail, with all of gorgeous Lakeland in front of us, and we finally were in the actual Lake District park.

The fells looked painterly and unreal.

 After a knee-killing steep descent, we followed a stream through a hot, dry valley that reminded me more of California than the far north of England.

 We hit the town of Ennerdale Bridge at mile 14.  This was where most hikers take off their boots and relax with a pint, but we had another six miles to cover to get to the YHA.

It was a fairly easy walk to Ennerdale Water.  This area truly started to feel wild, and we saw no one on the trail from this point on as I don't think too many people strive to get this far on day 1.

 The idea of a wilderness area is kind of a foreign concept in the UK, as it's been deforested and overgrazed for ages, but the area around the reservoir is having an experimental re-wilding as they let the forest take over.

There's a high trail around the lake up Antlers Crag, but we opted for the low trail...which ended up climbing quite steeply anyway.

 Despite exhaustion setting in, I couldn't help but be in awe of my surroundings.  The crystal waters of the lake, the high peaks of the fells squeezing us down the valley.

 The hardest part of the trail for the day was after a steep climb up there was a rather drastic drop and a squeeze to negotiate.  I ended up squeezing my pack a bit much and I had a water bottle push its way out of its holder and drop down into the lake.  gulp.  But yeah, there's nothing like a little vertigo to wake you up out of your comfort zone.

maybe the lady on the train yesterday had come from here?  

 Squeeze negotiated, the rest of the trail was flat and peaceful as we rounded the far end of the lake.

The sun sets very late here in July, but around mile 18 I was getting ready to be off my feet for a bit.

pied wagtails

8:30 in the pm, the sun was pleasantly high still.   I love hiking late in the day- the earth cools off, the light is completely enchanting, the birds singing like mad.   I don't know if it is the promise of almost being done or what, but I always get a huge surge of energy at the end of the day and start booking it.

At mile 19, we had a complete collapse of map reading skills and failed to see a turn-off on the trail, crossed a bridge and entered a tall forest of larch trees.

A mile later, I thought to myself that we should have reached our destination by that point, but no sign of civilization.  I gazed out over the river we had crossed a mile back, and to my dismay, I could see the backside of the hostel directly across from where I was standing.

For fuck's sake.

There was no way to crash down the hill and cross the river here, so doubling back was in order, or going up another mile to the next river crossing.


We decided to double back that terrible mile, re-joined the trail, and walked the last mile slightly pissed at ourselves for the oversight.  We got to walk through a really beautiful forest that we wouldn't have experienced otherwise?

Our misadventure in map reading made getting to little Ennerdale YHA all the more sweeter, and this little off-the-grid hostel made a really comfy home for the night.  Plus, if you count our detour, we did a whopping 22 miles for the day, which is getting up in marathon territory and that might be the longest day of hiking that I've done in my life.  My feet were a bit sore, but I felt good.

I was a little apprehensive about staying in hostels as I had stayed in some filthy hovels on the continent, but they ended up being really fantastic and comfortable here, and we were able to get the all-important private room (with bunk beds).  There was a nice communal room for dining and reading, with plenty of friendly families and couples hanging around, and the whole thing was tucked in the fells on a rarely traveled dirt road and just gave us a real sense of accomplishment to having walked all the way here.  I apologized profusely for being so late- it was after 9- as most of them are usually only staffed until 10, and dinner time was at 7:30.  They gave us a wink and a smile and got to work cooking a rather delicious dinner.  I was expecting beans from a can, but they had a proper cook who did crunchy roasted carrots and a really hearty plate of Cumberland sausages.  I didn't even bother with asking for a vegetarian plate as per my usual; I was happy to eat whatever they threw at me.

With day 1 behind us, we were looking forward to the next day, and our first big fell climb.