The curious incident of the sheep and cake in the night

With such a glowing mountain forecast promising excellent visibility over the weekend, I headed to Cumbria on Saturday morning and got the bus to Keswick.

The plan: To walk from Keswick to Ambleside along a high-level route, taking in Helvelyn and camping up high somewhere.

After enjoying one of those all too rare mountain days of distant views and liquid early autumn light, I found a flattish, dry spot to bed down for the night.

Apologies for resorting to kit talk, but it’s significant for this tale. I was using my Go Lite Shangrila and Big Agnes bivvy bag combo. My first thought was to simply bivvy, although the wind was cold and, all things considered, felt the additional protection of the Shangrila would make the camp that bit more comfortable.

I pitched and had dinner followed by a couple of substantial nips of Aberlour.

The light receded and I bedded down for the night, zipping into the bivvy to help fend off the nighttime chill.

I drifted off into a fitful sleep to be awoken with the tent bathed in moonlight and the curious sensation of movement around my head outside the bivvy.

As consciousness slowly flooded in, I sat up with a start to find the head of a Herdwick wedged underneath the flysheet, eyes staring at me expectantly.

Nose twitching, my uninvited guest grabbed hold of a small plastic bag containing three pieces of homemade fruitcake and withdrew.

In the head torch beam, I watched the sheep, bag in mouth, disappear over some boulders to enjoy a midnight feast.

I cursed the burglar and then my own stupidity for leaving the cake out. I offer this as a cautionary to all you single-skin shelter users.

A brew with a view

Here’s a rather disappointing shot for my bivvy bag trip over the weekend… well, it was taken with a phone and had I been a bit more organised on Saturday morning and not in a rush to catch a train, I might have had more appropriate equipment at my disposal.

This is from high ground above Small Water looking towards Haweswater. It’s a great spot which allows you to hide from the crowds of tents around this little tarn (there were eight on Saturday, whatever happened to wild camping on your own, and not in groups).

Being in the bag allowed me to squeeze onto some nice flat ground between two outcrops and I was completely hidden from view.

My route took me from Windermere train station over the low hills towards Troutbeck where I picked up a bridleway skirting Applethwaite Common and then up to Yoke, Ill Bell, Froswick, Thornthwaite Crag, High Street, High Raise and then back to Kidsty Pike when I realised the time.

I dropped down to Haweswater via Kidsty Howes, skirted the reservoir and then gained ground to by bivvy site.

Sunday dawned gloomily and the raid soon started. It was interesting packing up in a shower but I managed to keep everything relatively dry.

I tramped over the Nan Bield Pass in driving rain before a gloomy early morning jaunt along the valley to Kentmere and then followed a network of bridleways back to Windermere via High Borrans.

Given the time, I only saw a sheep farmer, one mountain biker and a beautiful barn owl intent on staring me out. The weather might have been gloomy and the cloud base low, but this was sublime, solitary walking.

Soggy, but happy

Off the train at Windermere on Saturday morning and it’s straight on with the waterproofs.

I haven’t worn the full Montaine/Mountain Hardware ensemble for a few trips now and, after a quick detour to the Outdoor Warehouse, was pleased how this kit handled the rain.

I ‘walked in’ to Ambleside untroubled by the downpour.

And the rain came down... the view from Loughrigg TerraceA long stream of traffic headed out of the District and I received some curious looks from car occupants peering through steamy windows. Were these folk trying to tell me something… had the Lakes flooded for the weekend and was effectively closed? I went to find out.

Upon reaching Ambleside, the rain still lashing down, I looked at the hills to see which were clearer… none. I stuck to my original plan to clamber over the low hills around Grasmere with a possible wild camp near Easdale or Codale tarn.

I headed off on a familiar route over Loughrigg Fell and got lost in its labyrinth of routes. Pushing my way through indistinct trails bisecting lush bracken, I eventually found Loughrigg Terrace and dropped down to Grasmere.

I pootled around the lake and watched some anglers cast aimlessly for pike in the rain. Wandering to the village, I stopped for a brew (make that two) and the muddy grey skies lifted. Sunshine… marvellous.

I headed along Easdale Lane and onto the footpath. This was badly flooded, Easedale Beck having burst its banks. The water glistened in the afternoon sun.

Sun out, looking down Sourmilk Gill

I pressed on the path, passing a group toasting some occasion with Champagne.

Sourmilk Gill was a raging torrent, another sign of the volume of water that had fallen on the hills. I ignored it and carried on, enjoying the warmth and long light of early evening.

Sourmilk Gill a raging torrentI reached Easdale and was confronted with a stiff wind. I found a sheltered spot and studied the scene. It was too early to camp and the tarn felt a little too obvious and not at all wild. Should I try Codale or head up the left and find a spot on Great Castle How.

I opted for the latter. This was unfamiliar ground, but the map offered good prospects of a pitch near some water hidden away from the path.

I reached the ridge and was greeted with more wind… another obstacle to manage. I started to scout for a site… that one not flat enough… this one too boggy… another waterlogged… the search went on.

At last, I found a reasonably dry spot suitably sheltered and pitched. Typically, today I was suffering from Akto erectile dysfucntion. For those of you not in the know, the Akto requires a certain routine to get it nice and taught and today I couldn’t summon the skills. No amount of guyrope fiddling could cure the floppy side.

More tweaking and I was happy-ish. I clambered and got comfortable only for the wind to engage top gear and the end guy ropes ripped out of the sodden ground. I lay with tent fabric on my face and cursed.

This is meant to be fun?

I tried again with the pitch but not joy. The wind grew ever stronger and I considered my options. It was 8pm and I could be at the Langdale site in an hour, tops.

I bundled the tent in my pack, found a steep track descending the hillside and headed off for ‘civilisation’.

I walked and hoped… hoped for some room. Fortunately, there were some dry pitches left and up went the Akto again: perfectly, first time… typical.

A chap wandered by and said: ‘Interesting little tent’ as I puffed air into my Prolite4. Red faced, I nodded in acknowledgement and blurted some nonsense in reply.

Further commentary came from a family who couldn’t believe I could fit in such a small tent… I told them my physio agreed.

Pitched I had some dinner and then popped over the road for a pint.

Back on site, and now tired, I dozed listening to two Scousers drone on about losing their virginity and other choice topics while farting in chorus.Not the view I wanted. Langdale National Trust campsite.

Their discourse sent me on my way.

First light and rain on the fly… lots of it too. That wind as well, shaking my temporary home. Once more, the wind gained some gravy and I could hear it racing from Mickleden. It hit the trees around the site and their leaves hissed. I heard tents rattle around me and then, ‘crack!,’ as one of the poles of an elaborate and expensive looking tarp set up came crashing to the ground. The pole had snapped at the spigot.

I had a lie in.

Breakfasting in a leisurely fashion, I got out of my interesting little tent and couldn’t straighten for about 20 mins – a sign, if needed, that my geriatric back is not suited to the Akto any more.

I left at 10am and headed up with the Sunday masses to Stickle Tarn. Here, I left the crowds and regained my original route. I followed the path over Blea Rigg and Swinescar Pike back to Grasmere.

Fairfield first timer

Saturday morning and I was on the train to Windermere. The plan: to spend 24 hours (or so) in Lakeland and camp up high.

I’d no idea where to go. It would be busy, but if I could avoid the nine to five of most hill-going folk, I might experience some solitude even on a busy weekend.


So, location… I’m not consumed by bagging peaks, but scanning my eyes over the map, I realized there was an obvious objective. Despite spending many days in the Ambleside area, I’d never climbed Fairfield.

Come to think of it, I’ve never climbed Great Gable, either, but will be rectifying that one later in the year.

Fairfield it was to be, then, via a horseshoe and a wild camp.

Ambleside was hot, sticky and packed with folk… just as you’d expect. I ambled, wasting time waiting for the temperature to drop.

I grew impatient, though, and headed off to the slopes of Low Pike. Amazingly, they were deserted. Perhaps the heat was too oppressive?

I was in no rush so could climb slowly, stopping frequently to take in views and mark off familiar summits to the east.

I entertained myself further clambering over the numerous rocky outcrops of High Pike and was greeted with a refreshing breeze the further I climbed… a sign of what was to come perhaps.

It was only on the approach to Dove Crag that I met my first walkers of the day, all going down. I crossed Hart Crag and my objective came into view.

Pressing on, I scouted Rydal Head for possible camping spots. It was early but the broad grassy tops provided plenty of options, even if water was sparse.

I made a note of a few areas and carried onward to Fairfield’s similarly flat top, if a little more boulder strewn. Unseen crags to the north give the hill a more sinister edge, although everything felt rather sedate on this approach.

The weather then bit back.

A strengthening wind was accompanied by rain, and lots of it. I had to get down. But the only obvious option was Grizedale Tarn where many surely would be spending the night.

Negotiating a perilous path off Fairfield, I dropped down to Grizedale Hause and, peering through cloud, spotted four tents along the tarn’s shores. I found a perch on the lakeside and made a brew.

The heavens opened in earnest again and forced my hand. I would try to find a secluded, sheltered spot in this natural bowl, out of site and out of the wind.

I located a rough, but flat, plateau on the eastern slopes. Small streams bubbled and gurgled around me but their waters were hard to reach.

Despite the proximity of others, I was out of the line of sight. The changeable weather brought a brief interlude of sunshine and I took photos and dried out my kit on a steaming rock.

Indeed, such was the power of the sun, I stripped to my boxers to dry them too!

Later, the rain and wind returned but I was snug in the bag. Heavy showers and wind persisted through the night and I awoke early to more rain and thick cloud.

Eight Herdwick’s sat in a circle around the tent and blankly watched me brew up and break fast.

I got moving quickly. The rain stopped again and I took the opportunity to finish drying my clothes while wearing them. To regain the horseshoe route, I climbed Fairfield again, this time via Deepdale Hause and Cofa Pike… a far more pleasant ascent.

It was early, and I had the hills to myself.

Great Rigg was remained cloudy, but the views opened up as I reached Rydal Fell and met my first walkers of the day just after Heron Pike.

Rydal Water looked stunning from the vantage of Nab Scar, now under blue sky, and I made my way back to Ambleside via the Rydal Hall path.

Peak Bagging Day 2

Morning dawned a hazy grey – time for coffee. I gathered frigid water from the beck and splashed some on my face to wash away the sluggishness of my slumber.

The Scafell Massif looking, well, massiveThe little valley was quiet and my neighbours hadn’t stirred. The sheep were active, though, and moving in on my spot, chewing and staring.I munched on a flapjack, a huge doorstep of a thing which I’d bought from the Langdale campsite the previous evening.

As I ate, I boiled more water for the day and filled my hydration bladder. The sun appeared and started to burn off the early morning haze. It was going to be another beautiful day.

The bivvy bag’s breathable membrane hadn’t been troubled during the night but I aired it and the sleeping bag before leisurely packing them away.

That’s the great thing about the minor discomforts of the bag: it gives you so much more time on the hill. Nothing’s hurried, there are no schedules, nightfall doesn’t matter. Things would have been different had it been raining, of course.

The Royal Canadian Airforce memorial on Great CarrsI checked my campsite and removed all trace of my bedroom for the night. I was sure it would be used for the purpose again.

I walked along the babbling beck before finding a faint path to the head of Moasdale. Turning round, the Scafell massif looked formidable as the early sun enlivened the textures of its eastern-facing buttresses and screes.

Crossing the lip of the valley, I followed a muddy track across boggy ground down Moasdale, joining an engineered path to road leading to Hardknott Pass. Here, I met my first people of the day: A solitary walker headed for the Scafells and a duo kitted up by their parked car on the side of the narrow ribbon of tarmac.

Curiously, one of these guys was hobbled around in Italian plastic mountaineering boots. Perhaps he was breaking them in, or a devotee of some curious sado-masochistic cult.

I reached Cockley Beck Bridge and a fierce easterly ripped down Wynrose Pass, threatening to carry my map down the Valley of the Duddon. I checked the route and noted a path leading up the side of Grey Friar, giving my access to the ridge of the Coniston chain of fells.

The route up the side of this rocky hill was feint and hard to follow for good reason, as it has to be one of the more ghastly ascents in Lakeland. The preserve of fell runners looking for a quick route on some inconceivably arduous ‘round’, it offers little reward for the fellwalker save for the satisfaction of crawling onto the summit, lungs and limbs exploding.

I tussled with this climb for an hour, trying find a route through the tussocky grass and grippy rocky outcrops. The rock did offer relief to an extent, using the westerly sides of these hummocks for shelter from the wind and employing my hands to gain height rather than slumping, teeth gritted, on walking poles.

Eventually on top, I scampered to a rocky cove out of the wind and collapsed. Food and water were quickly consumed, including a sickly energy gel, which I’d located at the bottom of my pack.

Recovered, I pressed on, the route ahead to the Old Man along Swirl How, now clearly visible. Dropping down from Grey Friar, I made quick progress up to the memorial on Great Carrs where sheep licked moisture of the battered remains of the aircraft surrounding the cross.

I was reacquainted with the fierce wind and struggled to keep upright in the onslaught. The conditions were definitely better tackled with the poles safely strapped to the pack.

I reached the top of Swirl How and the summit of the Old Man came into view, its large summit cairn littered with the stick men, women and children – early pedestrians from the car parks and streets of Coniston.

The tourist track off the Old Man down to Levers WaterI headed to them, following an eroded path tracked by surplus-to-requirement cairns on this clear day. Following the lower path to avoid becoming a human kite, I left the path and clambered up the side of Black Crag before the final climb to the busy summit.

Folk came and went. Some stopped for sandwiches, one for two bottles of Grolsch and he diligently ferried the bottles and bottle tops off the hill as he headed for the rocky spine of Dow Crag.

The ridge looked tempting, but that would wait for another day. I skidded down the tourist path, now out of the wind but under a blistering sun. I passed parties of pedestrians on the way down, some of them reluctant, many of them asking me how far they’d got to go.

Industrial heritage is important in the UK’s national parks – they are working landscapes rather than preserves after all – but the battered and bruised slopes of the Old Man are testing, to say the least. Huge piles of quarry spoil line the path along with the rusted rails, rope and pulleys of heavy lifting.

I tried to appreciate this shattered landscape in context but wondered whether this was such a good introduction to fellwalking as it serves as many people’s first, and last, Lakeland summit.

Leaking in the early afternoon sun, I soaked my battered baseball cap in a stream and slapped it back on my balding head, enjoying the cooling water running down my neck.

I dropped into Coniston and headed straight for the Black Bull Inn. Two pints of Old Man were hastily ordered and I found a shady table outside and watched the holiday traffic, human and vehicular.

Two pints of Old Man at the Black Bull InnReaching the end of my second glass, a couple sat on a step next to me, rubber- necking for tables. Having missed one table the other side of the beer terrace, I quickly finished my drink and offered them mine. The woman was grateful… the guy said that a ‘young chap like me should have been on the hill, anyway’. Charming.

Bored with the bustle, I headed along the northern shores of Coniston Water, watching sailing dinghies scudding across the waves. After a slightly dicey bit of road walking, a growling, souped-up Subaru narrowly missing me, I found the bridleway to Grizedale Forest.

From memory, I found the green way-marked track and followed it through the forest to Satterthwaite.

The Grizedale campsite was teeming with families and mountain bikers. I waited for the other half to arrive, ready for a completely different camping experience for the next couple of days.

Peak bagging: The camp

Big Agnes Three Wire Bivy pitched near Lingcove BeckThe only problem with the rocky amphitheatre I’d located was the lack of a flat-ish path of ground to unroll and bivvy bag on.

I’d lie down in a spot and fidget it a little, only to reject it and try somewhere else. Thinking of moving on, I eventually found an area that I thought would do and ‘pitched’ the bag.

Although not as convenient as the straightforward bin liner type bag preferred by more hardcore bivvy aficionados, this process still took seconds and, with no guys ropes to play with, the bag was far more convenient than a tent.

With the sun now well on its recession limb to the west, I lay back against a rack wall and made some tea out of the waters of Lingcove Beck, which burbled 40 yards to my right. The sky was clear, and the clouds wore a pinkish-vanilla hue in the soft evening light.

The valley, with the steep rocky walls of Crinkle Crags to the left and the Links of Bowfell just visible behind me, was silent save for birdsong, sheep gingerly hoofing across scree and the whistle of the wind as it raced over rock face high above.

I was quite comfortable, though, in my elevated hiding place.

The view from the bivy siteThe secret nature of my bivouac, or so I thought, was even more apparent when viewed from the faint Lingcove Beck path. Unseen from this trail, the only people that would find me were shepherds gathering sheep and other walkers seeking refuge for the night.

I sipped my tea and ate several pork pies, following the advice of Ronald Turnbull in his ‘Book of the Bivvy’. I shuddered at the thought of a night with the tented masses in Langdale.

At 10pm the light levels were still good, but as a chill now hung in the air I decided to bed down. I zipped half way into the bag, in my sleeping bag also, and drank more, enjoying the remainder of the evening.

To the south, I watch two walkers made rapid progress up the shoulder of Hard Knott, also seeking a short sleep over amid the rocks perhaps.

My eyelids started to feel heavy and I settled fully for the night. Zipped in my orange cocoon, I rapid became too warm and unzipped the main entrance, leaving just the mesh.

Morning has broken, but no condensation in the bivvy bagLulled by the gentle valley sounds my semi slumber was interrupted by… voices.

Surely not at this late hour? I unzipped again, and waited for the intruders to pass. They didn’t, the volume reaching a peak and then not receding.

I had to investigate, and discovered two chaps and a geodesic tent the other side of the knoll. I said ‘hello’. Initially disgruntled at the disturbance, I chastened myself as they had as much right to be enjoying this lovely evening as I.

With that, I slept fitfully for five hours.

Postscript: Here’s some pretty awful video giving you a flavour of the bivvy site. I hope to be doing a bit more of this in the future when I get my hands on a better camera.

Peak bagging: Day one

The view to red screes from the bridleway over Loughrigg FellI’d been watching the forecast all week. The line of weather icons on my desktop iGoogle weather service had said anything from heavy rain to bright sunshine as the weekend approached. I wanted it to be dry, though, as I was going to sleep high in the bivvy bag.

If I had one eye on the weather, then the other was on a range of Ordnance Survey sheets covering the Lakes. I didn’t know where to go but had criteria to satisfy.

Firstly, I needed to rendezvous with the other half in Grizedale for a couple of lazy days on a campsite to see out the Bank Holiday weekend. Secondly, I wanted to avoid public transport as waiting for buses just gets in the way of the journey. Finally, I wanted to avoid people if I could… tricky, given the weekend.

Spreading the maps on the dining room table, I decided to wander from the train to Ambleside, walk bridleways to Langdale, head over Bowfell and find somewhere quiet to rest my head the other side of the ridge north of Moasdale. I’d peered into the lonely valley Lingcove Beck while clambering over Crinkle Crags many a time, but never had reason to head that way.

From my overnight camp, I could walk down Moasdale, scale the steep side of Grey Friar and then hit the ridge serving the Old Man of Coniston, which I’d never traversed before.

Dropping into Coniston, it would then be simple trek through the network of trails that bisect Grizedale Forest and deliver walkers to its sculptures and abandoned quarries before dropping into Satterthwaite and the campsite.

Loughrigg TranSo on Friday morning, I sat on the train as it trundled into Windermere station and then walked along the road, the old coaching route, to Ambleside.

This may seem like an odd choice, but this stroll has always been my entrée to time spent in Cumbria as invariably I arrive by train. It also affords great views of the Langdales and the Coniston fells across Windermere, whetting the appetite on this sunny day for what was to come.

Ambleside was already crawling with weekend tourists, but I managed to get a table at the Apple Pie Eating House and wolfed down a large bowl of chips and a hefty slice of their excellent homemade pies. Essential calories to tied me over later.

I pottered around for a while and then walked through lazy couples whiling away the afternoon in Rothay Park before finding the bridleway heading over the southern edges of Loughrigg Fell to its namesake tarn. The trail was hot, yet quiet, and the grassy fellsides dripped chlorophyll against the drenched blue sky.

Passing the campsite, already filling with flapping, bright nylon, I tuned into a shaded path and immediately felt relief from the full sun. The depression of the tarn was soon reached and anglers sheltered in the lee of a slope and cast hopefully into Loughrigg’s shimmering waters.

I followed a country lane to Elterwater and resisted the temptation to catch the bus to the head of the valley. The pubs were packed too, so the afternoon beer would have to wait until I reached the Old Dungeon Ghyl.

I now followed the Cumbria Way and took in the view. Mickleden in the afternoon sun

No matter how many times I visit Great Langdale, I never grow tired of its towering skyline.
The ‘Pikes guard the north, impressive as ever, while to the south the low ridge of Lingmoor Fell gradually recedes to reveal loftier neighbours.

The thimble cairn on top of Pike o’ Blisco came into view, then the Crinkles and, finally, the shattered pyramid of Bowfell.With eyes upward I soon reached the ODG.

Black bold capital letters on a large white sign shouted that the National Trust campsite was full. I was glad I’d be up high tonight thus avoiding the nocturnal symphony of farts and snores that have disturbed my slumber previously when camped in this mini Glastonbury.

I dropped into the Hiker’s Bar for a pint-of-water-pint-of-Cumberland and enjoyed another first… sitting outside in the sunshine.

It was tempting to linger but I had The Band to negotiate, and woozy footsteps and steep fell side do not mix. I glanced at my watch: 5.30pm, a perfect time to leave.

I passed the last stragglers coming off the fell as I made my way to Stool End. I opened the gate for one walker and was asked where I was going.

‘To watch the sun go down,’ I replied. Always good to keep things cryptic where a wild camp is concerned.

The higher I progressed, the windier it became. Views to the left and right took the chill off, though.

Bowfell's summitI reached the junction with the Climber’s Traverse and was tempted to get my hands on the slabs. Reminding myself of the objective, I pressed on to the tumble of boulders that constitute Bowfell’s top. I sat and drank in Lakeland’s tops.

Heading towards Esk Pike, I soon found the ruddy soils of Ore Gap and then took a left over the lip of the ridge and followed Lingcove Beck. I dropped quickly out of the wind and was enveloped in stillness.

With little flat ground available, I spotted a rocky knoll where the gill widened. Progress further down the valley reacquainted me with the breeze but this rocky knuckle would give me shelter.

Climbing the windward side, I peered over the edge and smiled broadly. Below was a perfect near flat-bottomed cove: My bedroom- with-a view for the night.