Avoiding the Bank Holiday Crowds in Cumbria

Heading north to the lakes on a sunny bank holiday weekend might sound like anathema for anyone hoping to find a little open space on the hills, a plan to head up to the borders for a backpack in the Cheviots for a few days was shelved due to a lack of time so I headed to Cumbria for a few nights instead. With a promising forecast for I wondered if it would be a case of queuing with the crowds to get near the summits and if finding a place to pitch would be like choosing a spot to camp at Glastonbury wedging between some other tents. Turns out this wasn’t the case.

I parked up early on a Saturday afternoon just a few minutes south of the bustling crowds Patterdale and didn’t see anyone for the rest of the day. The conditions were near perfect, windless air and clear light with the warmth of the sun and everything I needed for a few days crammed into a pack. Eschewing footpaths for a bracken covered straight ascent of St Sunday Crag I reached the main track to watch heavy dark clouds make their way over from the west. To the east the summits sunbathed above the model village green of the fields. SONY DSC

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Heading higher to Fairfield I watched thick misty grey rainclouds gather over the fells, they moved slow enough that I could pull on waterproofs from the pack before the deluge of showers began. There’s no rain like it, a complete and utter downpour that fell relentlessly and deafeningly loud that came with a howling wind that stole all the warmth from the air. Within ten minutes it had passed, leaving a colourful apology in a rainbow and shafts of sunlight pushing through the grey.

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A brief excursion to the broad summit of Fairfield turned out to be a mere pause between the showers, in the distance I watched the summits of the south west become engulfed by mist and rain showers. The wall of rain began to approach just as everything had dried off from the last downpour. This time the rain settled in for good, blowing in sideways for good measure and turning the footpath to Grisedale Tarn into a rocky stream. If anything, rain quickens the pace, it steals the views and forces your head to hunch down and march through the wet. As I passed the far end of the tarn the ground had turned to a damp soggy marsh, each step involved immersing a foot into a pool of cold water. The noise of the rain subsided the sound leaving the rhythmic  squelching of saturated trail shoes.

The hour or two of trudging along in the rain was all worth it when the sun broke through during the climb to Dollywaggon Pike….

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SONY DSCA beautiful golden light lingered for the rest of the evening, it was far too cold and still to dry off the wet from the rain but there’s nothing like a sunset after the showers ended, everything felt fresh, vibrant and alive with the light (I also felt like I’d been through a washing machine several times over). I planned on a camp down by Hard Tarn under Nethermost Pike far away from any footpaths which involved a rather foolhardy steep descent from the summit.

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It was almost dark by the time the tent was pitched on a near enough flat patch just on the edge of the small tarn, as the stars appeared I could see my breath and it felt cool enough for an overnight frost. Sitting on some rocks by the tarn with a steaming cup of tea I wondered if any bank holiday crowds would pass by in the morning, but they never came.

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The ground was still damp and dewy as the sun rose, there was no sign of frost and sitting in the sunlight with a cup of coffee fresh from the stove gave the feeling of a new summer morning. It was still early, plenty of time to laze about barefoot on the rocks, reading a book and putting more water to boil. I was reading an excellent book about cycling and camping across America by Leon McCarron, it’s funny how it’s desirable to seek a little escapism whilst in the middle of escaping.

After a breakfast of hot porridge and biscuits with several cups of black coffee, my home was stuffed back into the pack and I climbed out of the corrie to join Nethermost Pike, the clouds that had formed over the twisted profiles of the south western fells created a double horizon.

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I more or less had Helvellyn to myself in the morning, a few fell runners passed over the top but it was still before 10am and the days walkers were likely to be several hours away. A lone tent sat by the edge of Red Tarn and Striding Edge was empty, I looked back several hours later I could see the knife edge ridge dotted with dozens of walkers, formed into a queue. I felt I was managing to maintain a relatively solitary existence on what was arguably the busiest weekend of the year in one of the country’s most popular destinations.

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The morning remained fresh and bright with barely a hint of wind, other walkers began to dot the hillsides as the hours passed, sticking to the edges I made my way back to Dollywaggon and took a steep grassy pathless descent before taking a walk up Seat Sandal as grey clouds gathered and choked out the sun.

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The only real time it was apparent that it was a busy public holiday was on the summit of Fairfield where scores of walkers of all ages were out enjoying the midday sun, both alone and in large groups. It was still easy enough to keep out of the way by avoiding footpaths and opting for the rough ground, in some respects it was more fun steering clear of the well trodden paths. The afternoon passed in virtual solitude after I left Hart Crag following the stream down to the dovedale valley. The early start meant that I even had time to stop to eat and read for an hour down by the streams whilst the afternoon sun got too hot to walk in. The descent was lush and green, the sides of the valley coated in bracken and rowan trees thick with leaves and new berries perched on the banks and leaned over the waters.

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There was a brief return to civilisation down by the road near Brothers Water campsite, I was joyful that the on site shop was able to take a debit card payment for the heavenly combination of a cold beer, a magnum and a melted mars bar. As the afternoon turned to dusk I took another pathless ascent up through thick green bracken contouring over to Stony Cove Pike, where it was all uphill and endless false summits. The light pack began to feel not so light as cairn on the top of the hill turned out to be just a marker, the true summit laying further ahead and much higher.

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Of course the true summit arrived and served as a fine spot to stop and open the cold beer from the campsite shop whilst resting up against the cairn. I hadn’t really settled on a place to stop for the night and had an hour or so to get moving before the light faded, looking at the map there I was spoilt for choice and once again the hills on this side of the road were completely empty, I felt like I had them all to myself.

As the sun began to dip I walked up to the Obelisk on High Street, the summits of Ill Bell looked like a golden green breaking wave lurching out from the ground. Windermere stretched out like a small puddle in the distance. It was the most perfect time to be out on a hill and I’d not seen another person for hours.

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With the day quickly disappearing I headed up over High Street, contemplating a camp down by the shores of Hayeswater at the last minute opting to change direction I left the ridge for Riggindale. As I headed down the slopes to find a stream to camp a herd of deer galloped away at speed.

It was another late pitch and a darker night than before, the profile of Kidsty Pike faded into the black, the night was warm and still, I fell asleep wondering if the deer would be back in the morning.

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Rain pattered down in the small hours before dawn and I woke up briefly before falling back to sleep for another few hours. There was no euphoric sunrise on this dull monday morning, the sky was heavy and grey but I never get tired of the simple life of waking up in a tent and looking out at the world. As a mug of water slowly began to boil on the stove three young stags wandered into the open a few hundred metres away completely unaware of my presence. They looked to be playing and rolled around on a muddy patch, I managed to get a photo before the game was up and they registered that someone was there. It may be that the alluring smell of a man who has spent three days walking and sleeping on the hill was a bit of a giveaway.

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After the stags had gone I had the valley to myself for an hour or so, the air was damp but no more rain fell and I packed a soggy tent away for the journey home. By dropping off the footpaths and saving the summits for sunrise and sunset I’d managed to spend three days of a summer bank holiday weekend walking through the heart of the lake district and had barely passed another person.

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