“What a remarkable place”, Albert mused as his eyes gazed out through the window over the next section of the Cumbria Way, earthy brown from the spring heather and disappearing off into the afternoon drizzle. The path was guarded by various fells (Cumbrian/Old Norse for hills/mountains) with wonderfully mysterious names: Great Calva, Knott and Bowscale.
There was an unseasonable chill in the air for early May.
I had met Albert, a retired Dutch guy who was walking the 90 miles of the Cumbria Way from Ulverston to Carlisle; a few metres before the hostel, where I had sat to pause by a stream, soaking in the afternoon sun before the deep grey clouds rolled over.
My journey began in the morning, setting out from my home in Keswick, giddy with excitement as it was my birthday and I was off to spend it somewhere random and remote.
On leaving my house, a girl on crutches eyed my oversized backpack and asked me where I was heading. I explained I was on a birthday adventure to Skiddaw House. I asked her about her injury, knee ligament damage from ski racing and we shared our love for the Lake District in a brief chat, in that remarkably honest way you can with a fleeting meeting with a stranger.
The chat leaves me with a spring in my step as I unclip my walking poles to climb the first uphill forest section up to Latrigg, a small 350m high hill with a viewpoint over Keswick. The spring gorse flowers are heavy in bloom, the sunshine yellow lighting up the steep path as I paused to open a birthday card. I’d bought all my cards with me, and planned to open one at each photo/snack break stop.
Instead of climbing to the summit of Latrigg, I follow the path up towards a small car park and then a split off down to the Cumbria Way, pausing by a small stream for a snack and to have a moment of gratitude to be living in such an incredible place.
I adore hiking alone, and whilst I’m not a very experienced hiker, I was confident this should be within my limits. I am, most definitely, a plodder of a hiker – I’d rather take my time to enjoy the scenery, to capture the little details on camera and video, rather than power on through at an express pace. And this is why I love hiking alone – I don’t like the thought of holding people up and would rather allow myself to be immersed in the surroundings than anxiously trying to catch up with the person in front.
I continue on the path, which rises gentler and affords views over towards the towering Blencathra, before picking my way across the rocky Longscale Crags, splashing in the muddy, boggy puddles, pleased as anything to have invested in decent walking boots before I went to South America last year. A family of mountain bikers pass by, the youngest not quite making the steeper section and grumbly gets off his bike to push on.
The afternoon sunshine dips in and out behind the clouds as the path opens out towards more grassy fells, dotted with the sturdy grey Herdwick sheep, natives of the Lakes. I pause by the stream, where I meet Albert and we sit for a while, exchanging stories. On the horizon a large, old grey building backed by pine trees is in view. Our home for the night, Skiddaw House Hostel.
We had arrived early, before the 5pm reception opening but the hostel had emailed us a door code to use. Punching in the numbers with numb, chilly fingers, we entered into a small porch, with doors marked showers and toilets, leading to an open kitchen, with windows overlooking those mysteriously named fells.
A little jam jar of wildflowers and heather rests on the large kitchen table. A Victorian pully drying rack next to a wood stove, inscribed with a Norwegian proverb.
To the left, we make our way into the cosy lounge, dropping off our bags and sinking into the cushioned chairs next to a real coal fire, glowing a sunset orange, so welcomingly warm.
On the walls, a huge array of books about the Lake District, travelling and nature, with board games on the top shelf. In the corner, a piano with a guitar, hand drums and maracas. I get those tiny, excited butterflies of excitement to be staying in a place with so many thoughtful, welcoming details.
I can already feel this is a truly special place.
Kicking off my hiking boots, I begin to leaf through a few of the books until the hostel warden, Suzy wanders in at 5 with the reception book.
Martin and Suzy have been running the hostel for 3 years, with partial help from the YHA (under their Entperise Scheme) and are keen fell runners and cyclists, as well as having worked in various hostels including the equally unique and remote Black Saili in the Lake District. The building was built around 1890 and has also been used by gamekeepers and shepherds.
A small shop next to the boot room stocks a decent range of food, from pasta to tinned curries and chilli, plus little steamed puddings and beers from the local Hesket Market Brewery. Albert asks if I would like a birthday drink, and I opt for a wee dram of Laphroaig, which is apt as I spent my birthday at the distillery on Islay 2 years ago!
The drizzle has now turned to rain, and I’m feeling warm and snug by the fire, as we are joined by Simon from Shropshire, who had been staying for 5 days to go walking and Jess and Dom escaping London for a week of hostelling around the Lakes.
With only solar electricity and no phone signal or internet, we spend the evening by the fire after our DIY dinners, sharing life stories in that natural way you do with travelling strangers. Just before darkness falls, Suzy lets us know there has been a dusting of snow on the nearby mountains of Skiddaw and Blencathra, and we gather outside in the fading light. A stunning sight, and one I was not expecting in early May.
The coal fire is the hostels only heating, so the bedrooms are understandably chilly at first but in the corner was a huge pile of blankets and hot water bottles – how cute! My room, Falcon, had 5 beds, two bunk beds, but as it was a Monday evening and not busy, I had the room myself.
As conversation quietens, I flick through the guest book, reading about the past adventures of previous guests, from a snowy New Years Eve (the hostel is open for groups in winter) to the long hot summer days of this recent Easter.
As my eyes grow heavy, Jess boils the kettle on the gas stove and we fill hot water bottles as we pad up the wooden stairs to bed. I fall asleep cuddling mine, filled with so much gratitude and happiness for such a special birthday.
I sleep soundly, almost through the whole night, the absolute peace and the thick, cosy duvets making it tough to get up! But weather permitting, I’m hoping to hike up to Skiddaw today, only a short distance from the hostel before heading back to Keswick.
I jump for a quick, warm shower, before hastily packing my bag and making a huge bowl of porridge on the gas stove. The hostel also offers a DIY breakfast which looks like a super spread – bread, cereals, spreads, fruit and eggs – but I’ve bought plenty of my own bits.
I add my own entry to the guest book, bid farewell to the remaining guests and check with Suzy the route from the hostel up to Skiddaw, before setting off.
The rough path leads up behind the hostel to the 666m high Sale How before climbing steeply to meet the main gravel path up to Skiddaw. As I meet the main the path, the clouds close in and sleet begins to fall, which quickly turns briefly to snow, biting against my face and hands. Luckily, I’ve come well prepared with copious layers, ski gloves and woolly hat.
You truly never know what the mountains will throw at you and it pays to be prepared.
I momentarily contemplate sacking off hiking to the summit, as I pull my buff a little higher to shield the snow, but it soon begins to ease, and just as I approach the smaller false summit, Derwentwater comes into view, and I pause for lunch.
The true summit is only a short walk, and I arrive, elated and ask a guy from Carliese to take my jubilant picture. After pausing for a brief chat, I set off back down the path towards Keswick, which varies from flat to steep gravel sections but is a path well trodden.
As I arrive back down into Keswick, 3 layers less than I had at the summit, my phone signal returns and flashes with delayed birthday messages. Back in the real world after an epic birthday adventure in the wild.
Footnote: I paid for my stay at Skiddaw House and choose to share my adventure there, simply because I loved it 🙂
Make it happen
Skiddaw House Hostel is around a 5 1/2 mile walk from Keswick or a shorter walk from the Blencathra Centre.
Dorm beds are around £20 a night and can be booked via the YHA website
Check out the Skiddaw adventure highlight over on my Instagram Stories!
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