Coast to Coast - East to West 2006

Author: George Tod

This walk is illustrated with photographs. Click on small photo to enlarge in situ, or click caption to enlarge into new window.
Part 7 - Days 11 & 12 - Grasmere to Ennerdale Bridge

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Day 11 - Thursday 15th June - 15 miles - 3,530 ft ascent

Grasmere to Black Sail Hut, Ennerdale

I assumed that breakfast started at 8.00, but I could have had it at 7.45, had I read the information properly. However, I got to the dining room just before the children arrived, so was able to get served straight away and managed to pack everything ready to be off by 8.45. This hostel is a fine old country house in lovely grounds but costs quite a bit compared with many hostels. Bed and breakfast cost £19.45 as a member so this would be £22.45 for a non-member, which is more than many B&Bs, though not those in the Lake District which tend to be expensive. Bearing in mind that this is for a bunk bed in a shared dormitory with no towels provided and a cafeteria breakfast, it is not particularly good value. The price of hostel beds tends to reflect the grading of the hostel, which is generally based on all sorts of facilities that a walker would never be likely to use. For walkers, the smaller hostels with fewer facilities generally provide a much better atmosphere, and cater more for their needs, as well as being better value for money. In retrospect, I would probably have been more at home in Thorney How, three quarters of a mile further up the road, even though it would have been a bit further from the village.

It was a very hot morning as I made my way along the road towards Easedale, before turning off for the steep climb up to Helm Crag. At first there was shade from the trees to help keep me cool, but then I came back out into the open with bright sunshine and no movement of air. However, as I gradually reached the top of the steepest part and started to swing round to the east, there was at last a breeze Ė not enough to keep me cool, but at least some help. As I ascended, Easedale Tarn came into view, with Harrison Stickle and Sergeant Man behind. There was a view of Grasmere and Loughrigg Fell below and the mountains of Fairfield and Helvellyn to my right. Near the summit, there are a number of rocky outcrops, which give the crag its distinctive shape. The first large one of these was well climbed and I took this to be the summit, but it is actually the one a little further on, a large slab of rock leaning at a steep angle, which doesnít lend itself to easy climbing, that is the highest point.

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Summit rocks on Helm Crag with Dunmail Raise to right
Summit of Helm Crag

There now followed a long ridge walk going up and down over several crags, but generally climbing higher as it went along. At Gibson Knott, I stopped for a rest and much needed drink before continuing to Calf Crag. It was quite slow and hard going with all the undulations of the stony path, but the views from the ridge more than compensated for the extra effort. There is an alternative route along the Easedale Valley, but this would not give anywhere near the quality of scenery and is only to be recommended in bad weather. It had started to cloud over by this time, so the scenery didnít look quite so good as I reached Calf Crag for another short rest.

When I continued on my way, I seemed to be going off too far to the left, and realised that I should have dropped into the valley then up onto Greenup Edge, whereas I has stayed higher up but was heading in the direction of High Raise. Rather than backtracking, I made my way with a little difficulty around the open fell side until I eventually came out just above Greenup Edge, having wasted quite a bit of effort in the process. As I regained the proper route, there was a steady stream of Coast to Coast walkers passing by, many of them Americans.

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Lining Crag towards Stonethwaite
Lining Crag

From Lining Crag, there is a very steep but well built path dropping down to Greenup Gill, but the slope gradually gets gentler as it progresses down the valley. I stopped for lunch at 12.40 under the shadow of Eagle Crag, having done only 6.5 miles of the route because of the slow progress along the rough crags. As I prepared to continue, it started to brighten up, adding a bit of sparkle to the scenery and, after a while, the path became less uneven so that I was, at last, able to walk at a reasonable pace. As I had no need to visit Rosthwaite, I took a short cut via the pretty village of Stonethwaite into Longthwaite, where the path leads part the youth hostel and along by the river to Seatoller. All the time, the weather was improving and the fells brightening up with sunshine, which makes such a difference.

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Eagle Crag overlooking Stonethwaite Beck
Eagle Crag
Village of Stonethwaite, just off main route
Old Toll Road to Honister Pass, looking back down towards Seatoller and Borrowdale
Old Toll Road to Honister Pass

Seatoller is another pretty village in Borrowdale, and the start of the Honister Pass over to Buttermere. The route, however, takes the old toll road, which gives a nice steady ascent away from the traffic. By now, I was getting into my stride, having felt a bit weary earlier in the day, and made good speed up to the top of the pass without too much effort. The toll road meets up with the road higher up, but there is a footpath shortly afterwards and, when that ends, the track through to the slate quarry is fairly free of traffic.

I wasn't sure whether I would be able to phone home from Black Sail Hut tonight, as they do not have a land line there and I didn't know if I would have any mobile phone reception in such a remote location, so I thought it might be possible to phone from high up at the top of Honister, where there might be more chance of a signal. Sure enough, my mobile was showing a good signal, so I continued on, keeping a check on the signal strength as I went along. By the time I reached the top of the old tramway, I thought that I had better phone before I lost signal strength, only to find that as soon as I tried to make a call, my useless Sendo phone said "No Network", having been displaying a good signal strength only moments before. It seems to get locked up at times and just keeps on displaying whatever it was doing before that happened. This more often happens the opposite way about, with it showing "No Network" when there is actually a good signal. It is only by switching it off and on again that it is possible to see what is really happening.

I continued up the path, which skirted past Grey Knotts, where I met up with a chap who was also heading for Black Sail Hut, and we walked along together for the rest of the way. It was a beautiful evening now with Great Gable and all the other mountains standing majestically in the sunshine. There is a steep path down into Ennerdale, which eventually levels out at the bottom of the valley for the rest of the way to the hostel. The hostel, however, cannot be seen until the last minute, as it is hidden by one of the many drumlins in this area. These are mounds of glacial deposits forming a series of small rounded hillocks near the head of Ennerdale valley.

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Buttermere and Crummock Water from near Grey Knotts
Buttermere & Crummock Water
Black Sail Youth Hostel with Green Gable, Great Gable and Kirk Fell
Black Sail Hut &Great Gable

There were several people already at the hostel, one of them the temporary warden who alternates between here and Ennerdale Youth Hostel. In the conversation, it was mentioned that there was reception on some mobile phones from outside this hostel, whereas there is none at Ennerdale Youth Hostel, which is four miles nearer to civilisation. So, surprisingly, I was able to call home after all from the most unlikely of places. The warden has a mobile phone set up with an external aerial to give more reliable reception, enabling him to take bookings, which had to be done via the other hostel previously.

The hostel had a problem because their gas driven fridge had broken down, and the YHA were having difficulty in sourcing a suitable replacement. Although the hostel does have electricity from a generator, it is only a low powered supply, which is used to top up the batteries for the electric lights, and is not running continuously, as would be required to run a commercial fridge and a freezer. This meant that everything fresh had to be brought up from Ennerdale Youth Hostel each day and had to be used up or thrown away afterwards.

This was one of the first of a series of youth hostels, opened at Easter 1933, and there are old photograph albums showing it as it was then. In many ways things have not changed very much, but in others they have. Now there is electric lighting, hot and cold running water, a shower and even central heating driven by a solid fuel stove. The big event in the early days was the arrival of a bath, which was mounted outside in front of the hostel, presumably filled by hand. In those days hostelling was more like camping, but with solid walls and roof, and none of the trappings of modern life.

Now the hostel consists of a living/dining room, three dormitories, a kitchen and warden's quarters. The toilets and shower are part of the building but accessed from outside, so you have to think twice before going there on a cold, rainy night. Problems with the capacity of the septic tank have resulted in signs requesting restraint in flushing, saying "If it's brown flush it down, if it's yellow leave it to mellow!" I had a shower, then dinner, which the warden had managed to put together from limited resources. It consisted of jacket potatoes, tuna, grated cheese, boiled eggs, salad and bread rolls. This was followed by yoghurt with honey and hazelnuts or tinned pears.

Amongst those staying were a young couple - she was from Crewe, but working in a youth hostel in Wales, and he was an Australian from the outback. After dinner they decided to climb Great Gable. It was a beautiful evening and Great Gable stands at the head of the valley just begging to be climbed, more than any of the other mountains. There was some concern amongst the other hostellers as to whether they would have enough daylight for the trip, as it was already 8 p.m. We were able to watch them as they climbed up towards Windy Ridge. They were just visible as tiny specks with the naked eye, but much clearer through binoculars, and could be seen to be making very good progress, reaching Windy Ridge in fifty minutes. They were then out of sight for the rest of the way to the summit, as the path goes round the back of the mountain. After a while, the rest of us were driven inside by the midges, which were now out in force, and the couple returned at 10.20 p.m., with still plenty of daylight left.

Another hostelling couple were quite elderly, and trying out hostelling for the very first time. It did make me wonder what impression Black Sail Hut gave them, as it is so different from the mainstream hostel network, with much more primitive facilities. Those who are looking for home comforts could be put off hostelling for life, whereas those who appreciate Black Sailís magnificent mountain setting and donít mind a few privations in exchange for the unique experience that this place provides, would want to return time and time again.

The one drawback with the hostel was that the warden couldn't find a key to the beer locker, so we couldn't have a drink, except for one chap who had brought his own. The nearest pub is at Wasdale Head, four miles away, over Black Sail Pass, which was not a real option in the evening, though some people do it in the middle of the day.

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Day 12 - Friday 16th June - 15 miles - 4,400 ft ascent

Black Sail Hut to Ennerdale Bridge via Black Sail Pass, Great Gable and High Stile

I had a good night's sleep, sharing a dormitory with one chap and his elderly mother, who had climbed Great Gable earlier in the day. Breakfast was at about 8.00 and was rather disorganised and a combination of "help yourself" to some of the things, with the warden cooking breakfasts of scrambled egg, hash browns, beans and toast, though the scrambled eggs were a bit difficult to identify as such either by appearance of taste; one hosteller actually having to ask me what they were. However, the warden had done his best in difficult circumstances, and had probably used some powdered scrambled egg mix or something similar.

The weather didnít look too bad, as I set off at 9.15, with cloud reasonable high above the mountaintops but quite overcast. I had not been sure whether I would have enough time or energy to climb Kirk Fell, Great Gable and then the High Stile alternative route of the Coast to Coast, so I compromised by climbing the Black Sail Pass, then skirting round Kirk Fell on the traverse path to start the ascent of Great Gable. By the time I had got to this point, the cloud had dropped considerably and it was raining enough for me to need my waterproofs. All views were lost as I started the steep climb of Great Gable, but I just kept going upwards until the path started to level out towards the summit, which I reached at 11.05. There was nothing much to see, other than the memorial, which I had learned attracted a large group of people for the annual Remembrance Day Service, with as many as 150 attending. There was not much point in staying there for long in the cold and wet, but I made a quick call home to my wife, as this is where I had proposed to her 34 years previously.

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High Stile and Haystacks with Black Sail Hut beneath, from Black Sail Pass
Black Sail Hut High Stile & Haystacks

I had to be careful to get the correct path down towards Windy Gap, and started off down one that was obviously leading me in the wrong direction, before I realised and was able to skirt around the mountain until I picked up the right one. Even when I had dropped down to Windy Gap, I was still in the cloud, and remained so all the way over to Brandreth, though at least the rain eased off sufficiently for me to remove my waterproofs. After a lot of slow going along rocky and steep paths, it was a relief to reach more level ones where I could progress at a better speed and with less effort. Route finding was not difficult, even in the mist, as it was just a matter of following the remains of the old metal fence, which had now rusted away so much that bits of broken off fence post were incorporated into many of the cairns as route markers.

As I dropped down below the cloud base at Brandreth, there were some good views down to Ennerdale and Buttermere with some signs of the weather brightening up a little, so I decided it was still worthwhile taking the high level route over High Stile despite the disappointing start over Great Gable. Making my way over to Haystacks, I stopped for a lunch break at Innominate Tarn, which was what Wainwright said was his favourite spot and where he requested his ashes to be scattered. The water supply to Black Sail Hut comes from there, so hostellers who have stayed there can say they have a little bit of Wainwright in them! There were a few spots of rain whilst I was having my break, but a weak sun was also breaking through, which made it look more promising.

The progress over Haystacks was rather slow, as there are several ridges to scramble over and then a steep path back down. It didnít help that I took a less favourable path down, which meant that, not only did I have a steeper and more difficult descent, but I also lost more height than I needed to. The path ahead looked formidable, with some very steep climbing but, taking it little by little, it was not as bad as it looked. There was a short, steep climb onto Seat followed by a longer, steep climb onto High Crag. The only saving grace was that there was a well-made footpath for most of the way, which made the ascent that much easier.

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Innominate Tarn on Haystacks, Wainwright's favourite spot, but now very overcast and spotting with rain
Innominate Tarn
Buttermere & Crummock Water from Haystacks
Buttermere & Crummock Water

At the summit of High Crag, I had a short rest at 3 p.m. The weather was still holding up with the cloud still clear of the fells over which I would be climbing, but not over some of the higher ones of central Lakeland. Thankfully, the route looked far easier from here with only gentle dips between each of the remaining peaks. There were some very good views down to Buttermere and Crummock Water, as I made my way over High Stile and on to Red Pike. Time was creeping on and I still had about five miles to walk after dropping down from Red Pike, so I took advantage of my lofty position, which gave me a good signal on my mobile phone, to call my B&B in Ennerdale Bridge warning that I would be later than anticipated.

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Buttermere & Robinson from High Stile
Buttermere & Robinson
Red Pike, Bleaberry Tarn & Crummock Water from High Stile
Red Pike & Crummock Water

I hadnít given much thought to the descent from Red Pike, thinking only about the ascent, but there was a drop of about 2,000 ft straight down the steep hillside, which was not only a strain on my leg muscles and knees, but also gave my feet a hammering as well. At last I reached the forest road at the bottom and was then on the flat for most of the remaining distance. A little way along the track I saw a Land Rover coming towards me with someone waving at me. It was the warden from Black Sail Hut just being taken back up there from Ennerdale Youth Hostel at High Gillerthwaite with fresh supplies. In retrospect it would have been more sensible to have booked in there for tonight, as it would have made the dayís walk far more comfortable. When I was booking it didnít seem to make sense to book two hostels only four miles apart by the direct route. However, the way I had come was over ten miles and involved some very steep and rugged mountains, which was quite enough for one dayís walk.

It is never good to have to rush a walk, which is what I was doing now, as there is a tendency just to focus on walking as quickly as possible without enjoying either the walk or the scenery. The path round the southern side of Ennerdale Water did not help matters, as it has a lot of rough stones and tree roots for much of the way, which both slowed me down and were harder on my feet. Near Anglerís Crag the path goes up and down the steep hillside, finding the best route around the crag and this also impeded my progress, but after that the path was much better and, before long, I was past the end of the lake and onto the road into Ennerdale Bridge. Much as I dislike road walking, at least I could make good speed, with nothing to hamper my progress for the remaining one and a half miles. By way of distraction, I was able to look at the wide variety of wild flowers in the verges to make the walk less tedious. I finally reached my B&B just before 7 p.m., footsore, weary, and in great need of a shower and something to eat and drink.

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Ennerdale Water looking back towards Angler's Crag
Ennerdale Water & Angler's Crag

The Shepherdís Arms Hotel was just along the road and provided sustenance in the form of Cumberland sausage, egg and chips along with a few pints of Shepherdís Arms Own bitter, brewed for them by the Dent Brewery. In the bar was a sign displaying the various records for running the Coast to Coast, the last one being 39 hours 36 minutes in 1991. Nevertheless, remarkable as such feats of stamina and physical fitness are, the main object of the Coast to Coast walk is to enjoy the scenery, which I doubt the runners had much time to notice. I can remember when I returned from last yearís walk of the Cambrian Way, a chap empathising with me about the walk and talking about his own experiences of running. To me we were worlds apart. He talked about how much enjoyment and satisfaction it gave him, but all this came at the end when he was able to look at his time on the clock, whereas he was prepared to go through any degree of pain and discomfort in the process. My objective was to set a schedule that would allow me to enjoy the walk and the scenery as much as possible. If I had to push myself to go faster or further, it was because of a failure on my part to plan that stage of the walk well. We really had nothing in common apart from the fact that we both participated in some form of physical activity. Now it was time for an early night after a long, hard but rewarding day.

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