Keswick Hike and Lake District Wild Camp
We’ve put up our tent in a lot of places in our seventeen years of adventuring with kids. Some of them up high, some down low. In New Zealand we even stayed at an indoor camping site. But we’ve never camped on a high fell. In fact we haven’t camped much on our own patch at all. So what’s the point of living near the high peaks of the Lake District if you don’t explore them? We set out to change that with a family microadventure on Skiddaw…
Microadventure on Skiddaw
From Keswick looking up, I can’t imagine a blade of grass ruffling in the breeze or the soft blade of a butterfly fluttering in its slipstream. The air feels so still and spring-like I imagine if I blow a kiss it will sink slowly down onto the translucent buttercups or pop silently on the spike of a holly leaf in the hedge.
The first sign that it’s windy up there comes with the trail of dudes heading upwards from Spooney Green Lane with huge backpacks. “They’re carrying a lot of sausages,” jokes Hannah, her mind on tomorrow’s breakfast. But they’re not sausages. They’re sails. And as we trudge up and up, beyond Latrigg and towards Little Man, they are using them to float away. One by one, like multicoloured lemmings, they jump. Heading back down towards Keswick, where Derwentwater looks like a child has been active with the glitter.
Skiddaw is the fourth highest mountain in England and all our research points to it being a sensible place for our overnight adventure. We aren’t climbers and have no skills at scrambling. But we can put one foot in front of the other and Skiddaw is basically a three hour hike. We do have a lot of experience of camping and all the right gear and we have checked the weather forecast so we know conditions won’t be severe. And better than that, a great sunset is likely. We debate in advance whether to take the tent, but decide it will be more of an adventure if we bivy out for the night. It turns out to be more of an adventure than we thought.
Blow wind, crack your cheeks
In fact at times I feel like I’m on a polar expedition or in the sub plot from King Lear. After a sunny walk, the shadows fall across the valley and the day removes its warm coat. We plan to sleep on the saddle between Little Man and Skiddaw and we set up camp at dusk before heading off to bag the peak. The bivy bag pegs strain in the wind as we put on as many fleeces as we have in our backpack and stomp to the top. Here at the trig point the chocolate hills swirl and splash, while the empty flats of the Solway Coast unfolds before us. The bright sails of the paragliders have long since been furled and curled into their rucksacks. We are on our own, apart from the wind, our constant companion. Here’s Cameron’s eye view of what lies beneath…
More happy campers
Out of the blue a couple march up. We chat about where they are planning to sleep and I wonder if they are also planning a sausage breakfast as I spot a baguette sticking out of their backpack.
“It’s not often you can carry a baguette up a mountain in the Lakes without fear of rain.”
I’m not sure whether they say this or I do as the words are carried off by the wind. But one of us says it and everyone smiles and goes on their way.
A choppy old night
Rationally I know I am not going to blow away. But in a tiny sleeping bag, in the dark, battered by the canvas, I wonder if my daughter might? I check her more than once, and can’t resist venturing out onto the fell. It’s a full moon on this not-so-silent night. The world is bright and empty and all mine. I try to grab the moment but it flies off, down the mountain, after the human kites. I retreat into the safety and warmth of my bivy and dream I am conquering a Pole.
Sausages, it seems, aren’t easy to cook in the wind, even when they are pre-cooked and we only need to warm them up. But eaten with a floury roll, behind a cairn at the top of a Lakeland mountain, they are the food of the Gods. It’s good that we have some energy in our bodies as the Millbeck Descent proves a bit more challenging than the path up the mountain. I slip and slide on the loose and jagged path and feel thankful it’s a clear day. With Carl Side to our right, we regroup at White Stones. The sun is out and Skiddaw has lost its lonely edge. Walkers and runners strike out past the sheep and bikers carry their bikes on their shoulders. We feel smug. We are looking forward to a second breakfast at The Filling Station café – a family favourite, or lunch on the terrace of Lydall House Hotel.
Room with a view
We aren’t ready to leave Keswick yet so book ourselves into the Youth Hostel which has just been refurbished after Storm Desmond wrecked the ground floor rooms. The family room, splendidly decked out in the YHA colours of green and grey has a view of the fells. (When refurbishment is complete it will have a private balcony too.) After a visit to the charming Alhambra cinema, we snuggle down in our beds. Outside the River Greta meanders through the town. The shadow of the mountain falls upon us and the wind gently reminds us of last night’s adventure as it puffles and ruffles by. The sausages are eaten, but it’s not so easy to consume and forget a mountain. My weather beaten face is proof that we were there. I reach out for that moment once again but the wind has carried the memory off down to the glittering lake. Perhaps it’s not for keeping. Maybe we need to keep on bagging it.
Practical tips for camping on Skiddaw
Skiddaw is perfectly possible for a wild camp for a family. But do not take the opportunity lightly. This can be a hostile and unpredictable environment and conditions can change at any time. Check the weather forecast before you leave and during the trip. Take wet weather and windproof clothes, even if it’s sunny in the town. Only undertake if all the family are fit and healthy and decked out in walking boots. If you want advice call into George Fishers in the town. It’s a shop and a café and staff are savvy about hiking and happy to share advice.
Do your research on where to camp. Take maps and compass and know how to use them. Take a phone and details of mountain rescue. Make sure your equipment is in good nick and of a high standard. A pop up tent you bought for a festival won’t work so well in a mountain environment. While wild camping in England is technically illegal (without the landowner’s permission), it’s often accepted that it’s ok to camp if you are over 600 metres up, provided you leave no trace. Treat the mountain well, it’s a fragile environment. Take nothing from the environment except your litter and don’t leave anything behind either.
Stick to the path. The sheer volume of walkers on the Lakeland mountains causes scars. Fix the Fells has a partnership project that aims to repair and maintain upland footpaths, but all of the soil that gets pushed away by erosion often ends up in the streams and rivers, and negatively impacts on the water quality and wildlife. Be aware of where you put your feet.
Don’t plan to camp in high winds. The weather forecast was mild and we still felt like we were camping in a gale. If you can, find a sheltered spot, but there aren’t a huge range of options up high.
Take plenty of water and food supplies. Pre-cooked sausages are our recommendation for breakfast. You can buy them that way from several supermarkets.