A car-free budget adventure to Borrowdale, North Lake District in winter

A Car Free Budget trip to YHA Borrowdale North Lake District

The quiet days of January with fleeting daylight, unpredictable weather and the land still in its winter slumber. I stand on the shorelines of Derwentwater in Crow Park at 3 pm and watch the sun begin to drift from the horizon, a fizzing of excitement to be heading out on my first overnight adventure of the year.

A Car Free Budget trip to YHA Borrowdale North Lake District

I’ve made the 40-minute journey from my home in the central Lake District to my old home of Keswick, a place that always feels like pulling on a comfy pair of slippers, familiar and comforting. This time, it’s a brief trip to pick up supplies – cake from a cute new vintage cafe I stumbled on (Cinty’s), cash for ‘just in case because I’m going somewhere rural’ and a gourmet picnic lunch from Booths for the next day (I can never resist). 

Hopping on the 78 bus heading south towards the Borrowdale Valley, I continue to watch the sun fade behind the familiar skyline of Cat Bells and Maiden Moor as the open-top bus weaves its way along the shoreline of Derwentwater. 

I jump off the bus just outside Grange, the old stone bridge inviting me into the hamlet where wood smoke twists from the chimneys of the stone houses. In summer this place crawls with tourists, but today, it’s just me and an elderly man padding our way through the deserted lanes. I locate the footpath I need towards Rosthwaite which begins on a meandering lane, the silence momentarily punctuated by the excited chatter of a school group returning home after a day out in the hills. 

The clear skies have bought a nip to the air, icy patches have remained all day where the sun hadn’t risen high enough to melt it. I use the heel of my boot to playfully jump in the puddle, the satisfaction of hearing the ‘crack’ against the silence of the valley.

The path continues over rocky ground past a cave once lived in by Millican Dalton, who used it to escape from the hustle of London life. With the fading light, the trees take on a fiery hue, and I pause on a rock, the moss providing a comfy cushion to tuck into my apple cookies. My path follows the flow of River Derwent, crystal clear from winter snowmelt from the hills. I scope out potential places for a brave winter morning dip, but in my head I know these are more likely to be places I’ll return to in spring.

I dig my head touch out for the last mile. I love the way hiking in the dark makes your senses more heightened, more aware and alert of your environment, forced just to focus on what’s in front of you rather than being caught up in the wider views. 

The tiny hamlet of Rosthwaite glows softly from the collection of houses and the only open pub. I go to check it out, hoping for a cosy nook but it feels empty and sparse so I push on to the hostel. After one wrong turn venturing unexpectedly into someones private land, I find the path leading back over the river and up to a chalet-style building – my home for the night at YHA Borrowdale. 

I’d managed to bag a private room for 25% off in the winter sale (£22!) which could sleep two with a shared bathroom. My room turns out to be a six-bed bunk bedroom, with one bed made up of crisp white linen, a small sink in the corner and wooden cupboards for storage. Down the corridor was a row of showers and toilets, each with cleaning materials you’re welcome to use.

Pulling off my boots, I head downstairs to a large open plan room. A wood fire crackles in the corner next to a bar lined with whiskies, spirits and local beers. Old backpacks and climbing gear adorn the walls, with a large chalkboard detailing a running challenge to the nearby hill of Castle Crag and books and board games sit waiting to be used for winter night entertainment. 

In the adjacent room are a dining room and a self-catering kitchen next to a YHA kitchen serving the nightly supper club option or pizzas to other guests who have OS maps spread over the tables planning the next day’s adventures. 

In an effort to save a little money I’ve bought a pot of chilli, the kind you find among the tinned pies and pot noodles at the supermarket, which is surprisingly tasty as I pour over my own map to plan the next day’s Wainwright hike and finish the evening curling up by the fire with my book.

I wake up to the distant babble of the river, cuddled up in my bunk bed and dispel any plans I had yesterday of a morning dip. I peek out the curtains to see clouds drifting over the mountains, a leaden sky with a distant threat of rain. I head outside to check out the views in daylight and notice a row of camping pods, picnic benches and hiking boots turned into flower pots.

A Car Free Budget trip to YHA Borrowdale North Lake District
A Car Free Budget trip to YHA Borrowdale North Lake District

A hot shower and a bowl of porridge from oats decanted into a sandwich bag from home and I’m ready to check out and hit the hills. The reception staff kindly let me leave my extra bag in the bike shed locked up outside.

I head out on the rocky footpath deeper into the valley, down to the fringes of Seatoller and up towards my chosen Wainwright for the day, Bessyboot. It’s a hike of two halves, a decent path up past pools and ghylls carving majestically through the landscape and then higher up into a faceless boulder field where my navigation fails me numerous times until I reach to the stillness of Tarn at Leaves. 

A Car Free Budget trip to YHA Borrowdale North Lake District

The cold north wind whistles through, but I find a spot to shelter for my Booth’s picnic – mini French cheeses, salami, fancy falafels and hummus before piling on more layers of clothes and ski gloves for my final push up to the summit of Bessyboot, my 61st Wainwright and first of 2022. 

My navigation on the descent is better, but I still have to check the map a number of times to stay on course.

Back at the hostel, I retrieve my bag from the bike shed and luckily catch the penultimate bus back to Keswick as darkness falls over the valley, that happy tiredness of a day on the hills deep in my bones. 

January might not be the most obvious month for an overnight adventure, but find yourself a decent weather window and you can have the hills and valleys almost to yourself. 

Top Tips 

* The 78 bus runs from Keswick to Seatoller once an hour during winter and every half an hour in summer – the bus is usually an open top. A day ticket which covers all of the Lake District and Cumbria costs £11.50 for the day or £26 for 3 days – find out more info here

* The YHA is a great budget option for accommodation in the Lake District with 18 hostels (the smaller of which are only exclusive hire in 2022). Some hostels have camping pitches, pods and tipis in the summer 

* Rosthwaite has a few pubs but no shop so bring supplies with you if you are planning to self-cater 

Read more from my overnight adventures in the Lake District

Hiking to England’s highest hostel: a birthday adventure to Skiddaw House Hostel


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