The Cumbria Way- Day 6: Into the wild…Back O’Skidda

Castle Rigg (Keswick) to Skiddaw House Hostel

Overnight the wind was gusting up to 40mph again, but sheltered behind the campground hedge we were well protected. The forecast for the two days ahead was reported to be changeable, showers and wind. The forecasts so far have been pretty inaccurate; the mountains are making their own weather so anything could happen!

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Barry tackling the path along the Back O’Skidda.

We descended to Keswick and seemed to get bogged down in the town for too long, and it was lunchtime before we began the long pull up behind Latrigg Hill to the Back O’Skidda. Skiddaw itself was still shrouded in cloud and, with its dark bare slopes, was not an enticing prospect. Luckily we skirted the lower slopes and were soon out of the wind in the valley between Skiddaw and Blencathra. The narrow path clung to the valley side, crags and scree to the left, a fearsome slope down to the right.  I was aware that with backpacks weighing 16-17kg there was little room for a misplaced step.

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The desolate moors opened ahead of us as we hiked along the valley to Skiddaw House

Ahead the valley opened to dark uplands, occasionally sunlight would burn through, but the cloud always returned to swirl down among the crags and gullies.  Maybe it was the overcast weather, but the moors had a foreboding feel, and we missed the sounds of curlew and meadow pipits that would have relived some of the bleakness.  Finally the tops of several larch trees appeared on high ground to the left, and then the hostel itself. Skiddaw House was an extraordinary sight, perched in stark isolation amid a plantation of skeletal, wind sculpted larch.

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Skiddaw House Hostel surrounded by larches in its grand isolation

The wardens would not appear for 2 more hours, and not knowing where to pitch the tent, we focused on keeping warm. We made tea using the woodgas stove and huddled against the hostel wall, looking out across the moor, glad we had no further to go that day. After the kettle boiled we warmed hands over the glowing embers in the stove and sat in our sleeping bags until the warden’s white 4×4 appeared over the horizon.

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Firing up the woodgas stove for tea outside the hostel. The next day’s route in front of us.

Wardens Martin and Marie could not have been more hospitable and the hostel had a simple old-fashioned charm. Martin lit the iron stoves and we sat in the warm drinking tea and browsing back-copies of walking magazines. Later some more folk turned up and all evening there was the pleasant bubble of conversation and exchanged stories of trips past or planned. The hostel is an institution, veteran of many seasons and shelter for many walkers in that wild place.

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Keeping warm but feeling happy. Waiting for the wardens to arrive.

As the light faded we watched a short-eared owl hunting the heather below the hostel, the first time I had seen one since we left Orkney. In summer, a Short-eared owl would hunt over our garden, and sometimes land on the washing line, turning its luminous yellow eyes upon us. In the long light dusk we could look out from our window across the waving grasses to the sea, to the quiet, shifting tides between islands and beyond to the blinking lighthouse on distant skerries.

Back in Siddaw Hostel, we were lulled by the warmth and comfort of watching the wild moors from an arm chair. It is not until we experienced this comfort that we realised how tired and sore we were. Up to that point we had just kept going. I think comfort is good, but not too much, it creeps up on us and lures us away from adventure!

We were sorely tempted to take a bed, but camped in the end, a fine rain pattering on the flysheet, the sheep gently chewing the turf around us.

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