Coast to Coast Day 2 – Ennerdale Bridge to Borrowdale

Published 25 August 2010

Excavator at Honister Slate Mine

"Eeeee, welcome t’mine…"

A few weeks before we were due to set off walking on the Coast to Coast, Britain was in the midst of a major league heatwave.

Newspaper headlines screamed about “scorchers” and hosepipe bans, whilst middle aged men in suits and ties dabbed their foreheads with handkerchiefs.

Travelling to work in a sweaty tube carriage so hot that the windows of the train were beginning to melt, I muttered a silent prayer.

“Urgh. I hope it’s not this hot when we’re walking the Coast to Coast…”

It was an utterance perhaps best left unspoken. As we awoke for our second day of walking, rain was hitting the tarmac on the street outside.

“We’ve only had to dry walkers’ clothes three times since Easter” added the B&B owner helpfully as we surveyed the situation.

Squeezing once more into Catherine’s tiny, three sizes too small waterproof trousers (I mean, would it kill her to put some weight on?!) we trudged down the road to Ennerdale Water, certain parts of my anatomy regretting every move.

As it happened the rain had stopped as we reached the waters edge and I quickly decided to adopt plan B. I was going to dispose of the trousers, unzip the legs off my walking trousers and do the day in shorts. If they got wet, well frankly they’d dry out. Eventually. But at least I’d be bloomin’ comfortable.

Ennerdale Water

Ennerdale Water has two routes around it. Along the north shore is an easy, day tripper friendly version whilst Wainwright chose the more challenging path on the south.

Initially easy, we soon found ourselves clambering over slippery rocks, “admiring” the sharp drop down to the rocky waters edge below. There’s nothing like a nice gentle start to the days walking, is there?

And then there was the rain. On and off showers did indeed get my shorts rather damp although thankfully the plan was working and half an hour after the rain stopped my shorts were almost always dry. Just in time for it to start again normally…

It was a difficult route. Every time you thought it was getting easier, some more wet rocks to scramble up and over suddenly appeared. The end of the lake couldn’t really come soon enough, and we got there as the rain finally stopped meaning we could rest there awhile whilst watching the waves lap gently on the shore edge. The view seemed to make all the effort suddenly worthwhile.

The end of Ennerdale Water

For all our toils in the damp weather, it felt a wrench to leave Ennerdale Water as we crossed some fields to join the road running on the edge of Ennerdale Forest which ran parallel to the River Liza, without actually being close enough to provide a view of it.

Passing by YHA Ennerdale, the first of four youth hostels we’d see on the day, we headed on along the winding road which seemed to delight in going up and down and being enclosed by trees. Every now and then there’d be a gap and we’d be able to glimpse out and see the mighty fell of Pillar over on the other side of the dale, but most of the time it was just us and the leaves.

Towards the end of Ennerdale

Still the rain had gone and a little sun had even come out – so much that we parked ourselves on a convenient log and ate our packed lunch whilst putting the world to rights. Well, okay, we discussed how much better we’d be able to run the Shepherd’s Arms Hotel compared to the current management. First step would be to get the locals on board – after all, how can a rural pub/hotel really make money when there are no tourists around.

The world sorted – and our stomachs filled – we headed towards the end of Ennerdale and perhaps the finest location of the whole day. A location that also managed to house youth hostel number two: the isolated little hut that is Black Sail.

Approaching Black Sail YHA

Wainwright describes Black Sail as “the loneliest and most romantic of youth hostels” and it’s not hard to see why.

Completely isolated with no public road access, it has just three dorms and sits looking tiny and insignificant whilst surrounded by the mighty fells of Great Gable, Green Gable, Pillar and Haystacks.

Whilst the beauty of the setting could not be beat, I was more concerned with popping to the loo and I scouted the building to see if there was one.

One of Black Sail's local chaffinch population

But the place seemed locked up tight lest non YHA members managed to infiltrate the facilities, and instead we rested on a bench outside as an army of local chaffinches hopped over in the vain hope of picking up something to eat from us. Given I was eating an apple they didn’t have much choice, although days later we found out that the hostel was actually unlocked but had a very stiff door, and inside there were tea and homemade cakes for sale which, no doubt, the chaffinches would have enjoyed!

It didn’t matter too much as the birds were better fed by some other arrivals who sat down to eat their belated lunch. The two walkers who had joined us were the same two we’d met the day before and who had pointed out the bagpipes. A mother and daughter, at the time I’d assumed the younger one was in her teenage years but in the pub later that night I’d realised she was in her mid 20s with the year difference seemingly accounted for by the bandana she wore whilst walking.

Black Sail YHA

Noting the miraculous age reducing effects of such headgear I resolved to wear my own as often as possible in the hope of being mistaken for a 20 year old once more. Even if was a 20 year old with a slightly podgy belly…

Rested and relaxed it was time to tackle the next challenge: to climb the steep ascent alongside Loft Beck.

It got off to a good start with our guidebook directing us to ford an insanely busy stream. Quite why our otherwise excellent guidebook decided that was a good idea, who knows. Wainwright’s original took a higher path and as we struggled across we could see a steady stream of people taking the far easier “proper” route.

Just as we’d finally made it to the right place, having had to leap over the wide stream, the heavens opened and the rain began once more. A good path had, at least, been made with steps cut into the stone, however once more they were made fun by the wet weather.

Outstanding view of Buttermere

Then, almost as soon as it had started, it stopped just as we got near the top. Clouds began to part and a view… oh what a view… Amazing views of all around. Of Ennerdale. Of the mighty fell of Haystacks. Of Scotland and the Isle of Man in the distance. And of the divine looking Buttermere valley in the distance. It was as if the rain had had a tantrum on us, then felt rather embarrassed so resolved to make it up to us…

“Well you’ve been through all that pain… I’m sorry… Here, have a moment to rest… And enjoy…”

It was a beautiful spot. Almost everyone who made it up ended up just staring almost in disbelief – that there really couldn’t, shouldn’t, be such beauty. As we walked on, I regularly had to turn round and admire it some more, until we finally came to the point of no return, where we’d have to turn away and leave it for ever and head to Honister, walking down on the old dismantled tramway that used to send slate down from the hills.

The dismantled slate tramway

The tramway was a strange sight. Raised on an embankment it initially remained resolutely flat whilst the land around it gradually sloped down. It looked like it was about to abruptly end in several places, almost like it just stopped. Eventually it headed downhill, heading steeply down to the slate works near hostel number 3 – YHA Honnister.

Our guide book perhaps hadn’t prepared us for Honister Slate Mine. It informed us “great joy awaits you here” and that if the place wasn’t busy we’d see the sign inviting us to take tea for a voluntary donation. It put in mind of a small operation – a tiny hut with someone handling the slate and occasionally chatting to interested tourists.

Instead we found a full on “slate experience” with a full car park, slate experiences, an invite to fill your car boot with slate for £20 and a petition calling for support for a new zip wire!

It all seemed so strange; so wrong. So odd that we felt compelled to endure the tourist trappings of a heart shaped chocolate chip shortbread with our cup of tea from the bustling café.

Resisting the lure of a “I walked the Coast to Coast” slate coaster, a slate picnic table and the chance to put a load of slate in our rucksacks, we set off once more down towards the valley floor; Honister only being a mere staging post on the long descent down hill.

Descending downhill near Seatoller

The path meandered gently down hill; far more gently than the main road which passed nearby. Compared with the business of the paths from Black Sail, it was quiet now and we saw few people bar a couple of cyclists heading upwards.

Our route eventually went down hill with a vengeance on a descent that boarded on the near vertical in parts to take us near the village of Seatoller. From there we were on the home straight and a wooded path to hostel 4 and our destination – the beautiful Borrowdale YHA.

The scary chain path!

There was just one last obstacle – an extremely narrow section of path along the side of the busy River Derwent. One section was so narrow that a chain was provided to hang on to and after safely negotiating it and setting foot on the fractionally wider path on the other side, I mused on how many people have traversed the whole day safely only to believe this to be a trivial section before falling and slipping.

No sooner had I thought that and I slipped on the rocks, falling heavily on my left side, my rucksack trying to drag me towards the river whilst I clung on to the stones for dear life.

Despite the hard landing, thankfully nothing serious happened bar my knee getting a trifle muddy and we made it safely along the remaining hundred metres to the busy hostel where the warden promptly spent several hours going through the many food options available to us during our stay. What would we like for the evening meal? Three course or just one? Porridge for breakfast? Vegetarian sausage? Beans or tomatoes? Packed lunch? Large or small?

Each meal seemed to have its own checklist of options to consider and it was a blessed relief to finally have filled them all in so we could shower and change before actually eating. Still the warden was a very friendly and nice chap and gave us the hire of two towels for free, so one mustn’t really grumble.

Borrowdale YHA

Hostels have changed a lot since the old days. We’d recently watched a documentary about hostelling of old, full of spotty oiks sarcastically singing “We love you warden, we do” as he tried to impose lights out.

I don’t know if hostels did meals then but if they did they no doubt involved a big vat of stew sold at thruppence a bowl. But only if you did your chores and had cleaned the toilets before hand.

Whilst contemplating that thought, we munched on marinated olives, chomped on homemade bread and enjoyed a freshly cooked vegetable curry and Cumberland sausage respectively.

And as we retired to the lounge and supped our bottles of locally brewed, bottle conditioned ales (well Claret didn’t seem quite right really), I pondered starting a good old fashioned sing song, handing round copies of the YHA songbook and shouting “Come on everybody!”

Times change and somehow I didn’t think the large group of supercool looking teenagers doing a jigsaw puzzle would have gone along with the idea. With a heavy sigh I did the next best thing and ordered another bottle of beer and checked on my laundry.

One Coast To Another: Following Wainwright from St Bees to Robin Hood’s Bay

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