I ditched the car and said goodbye to civilisation for a few days. Taking the first footpath off Howgill Lane I passed through Lockbank farm where an old couple gave a cheery wave from their farmhouse porch. After a steady climb up Winder, a snow capped Arant Haw came into view setting the scene for the days to come.
The walk turned to a trudge, a blanket of thick crunchy snow covered the fells beyond the point of Arant Haw. It felt like a real treat to be out in such clear bright conditions. Several layers and a new down jacket I treated myself to (thanks me) kept the chill off and I was content to take it all in, knowing I had a full three days to come. I passed a few walkers who had come down off The Calf, one man said that it was so cold his nose had nearly dropped off. I’ve got quite a big nose so I felt quietly confident that I’d be okay. The ridge above Hobdale Scar offered some stunning views, though the downside of taking lots of photos was losing all feeling in my fingertips every time I stopped.
The original idea had been to head over The Calf and find a place to camp North of Cautley Spout in Bowderdale, but the late start and the slow pace caused by the snow meant a change in plan. After a knackering windswept climb up Calders it was getting on and the sun was low. I’m not the world’s greatest navigator and the prospect of disappearing light, icy winds and any change in visibility didn’t appeal. I opted for the path down off Bram Rigg Top and made a plan to set up camp in one of the valleys below. It was steep and slippy on the way down, and I’m sad to say that my wee green flask fell out my pack and tumbled gracefully down a snowy hillside. It’s on the south side of Calf Beck and it’s yours if you can be arsed to get it. A frozen twix helped me through the grieving process.
Calf Beck looked like a promising place to set up for the night, leaving the snow behind for the day I found a perfect flat patch of grass right next to the beck. Within 10 minutes I had a new place to call home for the night and warmed up with a few cups of tea and some biccies as the sun disappeared out of view. This spot seemed fairly inconspicuous to me, my tent is in the bottom left of the first photo (if you missed it) and the second was the view down the valley with Brown Moor and Castley Knotts fighting for centre stage.
One of the challenges of winter camping is filling the long hours between sunset and sunrise. To stop myself losing the plot I bought along a load of podcasts and the new George Pelecanos book (which is ace). A meagre portion of hotpot in a silver pouch was for tea and I stayed zipped up in my sleeping bag as much as possible to stave off the chilly January night.
I was up by 08:00, the temperature had definitley dropped into the minuses in the night as my water was frozen and my tent was covered in frost. I’d stayed warm enough in the night and only woke up a few times. It was one of the beter nights sleep I’ve had outdoors and I woke feeling fresh with no major aches or pains and my nose was still attached. I tried one of those disposable coffee brewers this morning, you pour boiling water into a bag and leave it for 5 and you get half a litre of fresh ground coffee. Damn fine coffee, but quite a lot of faffy packaging to then cart round for a few days.
The OS map showed a hut marked further down Calf Beck which I wandered off to try and find thinking it might be a nice place to have a bit of brekkie in. The hut was nowhere to be seen so I wandered back to my tent to find a farmer on a quad feeding the sheep up on Bram Rigg. He was looking down at my tent and I wasn’t sure if I was in for a bit of a bollocking, I thought I’d try the friendly wave approach and hope for the best, he waved back. Friendly farmers, good stuff.
Low cloud made for poor visibility and provided a distinct grey change in atmosphere from the brightness of the previous day. The wind was relentlessly strong and icy. A hat, two hoods and two pairs of gloves kept it at bay. I got to the rounded summit of The Calf at about 11:00, it was looking very white.
As I fed my ‘five a day’ Twix habit a fell runner appeared from the mist having zipped up from Sedbergh, she stopped for a wee chat and disappeared again. Within a few minutes a nice couple and their frosty faced dog made their way to the Trig Point, we managed a conversation in spite of the howling wind, they were also from Sedbergh and showed me some photos of where we were stood in less wintry conditions. I think this is the most social I’ve been all year.
I wandered off in the direction of Hazelgill Knott, the snow had made the tracks pretty vague and I soon realised I’d gone off course towards Grains. Backtracking, I stopped for a spot of dinner, it was bitterly cold and my toes never stopped being numb on this day. Though looking out over Langdale and Bowderdale I couldn’t have been happier.
I took the track North from Hazelgill Knott towards West Fell, the temperature remained around freezing all afternoon. The views were incredible, particularly when the sun broke through around Bowderdale and Simons Seat.
I left West Fell and dropped down to Langdale Beck via Langdale Knott with a view of coming back round to Churngill Beck and setting up camp again. I couldn’t find a decent place to cross and ended up following the beck North all the way to an ancient looking arch bridge. I was still keeping my eyes peeled for Postman Pat, I’m sure he drives over this in the opening credits?
Wandering up Churngill Beck gave little promise of any half decent camping spots, the valley sides were steep and deep and any point where the terrain levelled out proved to be very marshy and/or tussocky. The further I ventured, the higher up I got and once again the sun was dipping out of sight for another day. I sized up a few so-so spots which would have done, but there’s nothing more frustrating than settling on an okay camping spot for the night and then finding something idyllic round the corner the next day. Perserverance paid off and I chanced upon a flattish spot under a pinkish Docker Knott. You can just pick out my tent in the dwindling light in the second shot.
A quick run up Hand Lake gave me enough phone reception to text the other half to let her know I was still alive. Four wild horses were also calling the valley their home for the night. Tonight was definitely much colder than the night before and the dregs of my tea had turned to ice in less than 2o minutes. I made sure I was bagged up in my tent and fully clothed by 6pm. Other than the varying levels of brittleness in my Twixes I didn’t have any way of knowing the exact temperature, Sedbergh was supposed to be -3 or -4 so I’d guess a bit lower than that. Either way, when your tea turns to ice you know it’s chilly.
All things considered I slept well, I woke up feeling warm and well rested. My boots and laces were frozen solid and a thin layer of frost covered the outer of my tent. Either someone had told me or I’d heard that gas stoves are really inefficient in freezing weather, thinking ahead I kept my gas canisters in my sleeping bag all night and they fired up fine in the morning. It was another clear blue sky day, the sun coming over Middleton adding a little warmth to the morning. In the second shot you might be able to make out the lone white horse stood on the hill above my tent. This was the most Twin Peaks moment I had all weekend (except for the damn fine coffee).
After another massive bowl of porridge it was up onto Hand Lake, past the wild horses and up on to Docker Knott. Today was by far the coldest day, a really icy wind was adding to the chill and I can’t say I ever really got properly warm today. No fresh snow had fallen but it seemed that the drop in temperature had frozen the existing snow harder. Passing over Wind Scarth and onto Breaks Head nearly blew me over the edge, the trekking pole cam in handy for steadying myself. Regular breaks were taken behind snowy mounds to recover from the complete battering I was getting from the wind.
It was a slow return to The Calf, the few figures I had seen in the distance were gone by the time I arrived, I saw no more than four people on the hills today. The idea of a hot bath and some decent home cooked grub was suddenly sounding very enticing. Though I must say at the end of any backpacking trip those last few miles when you’re leaving the hills and returning to where you came from always leave me feeling a bit glum. A literal comedown? I console myself by saying I’ll keep coming back until I feel like I’ve had enough. For such a compact group of hills that are only a stones throw from the M6 the Howgills felt like a real wilderness in these conditions. It will be good to return in the Spring to see them in perhaps a more benign greener state with longer days to explore them
From Hobdale Scar I dropped onto Sickers Fell where the snow was much more sparse and the ice had more or less melted to slush. A narrow track round Soolbank ended at Settlebeck Gill where the waterfalls, the nibbled short green grass and hot sunshine made me almost forget the Winter wonderland I’d been in for the last three days. As I arrived at the hotel I’d booked I realised I was still wearing about a dozen layers and hadn’t had a change of clothes for over 72 hours. I started to run a hot bath.