It’s a tradition in our house that during Twixmas (the boring bit between Christmas and New Year) the rest of the family fly over to Ireland to catch up with family whilst I head north to walk in the mountains. This year I was a little worried that the combined efforts of Storm Desmond and Storm Eva would curtail my plans but I was assured the Lake District was open for business. Waterproofs packed, I headed out of the door ready for the long trawl up the M6 to Ambleside.
A minute later I realised the brown liquid dribbling out the car wasn’t normal. I lifted the bonnet to find oil dripping down on me; something was horribly wrong. It soon became apparent that when my other half had helpfully topped up the oil he’d forgotten to screw the cap back on. I’d driven 40+ miles the day before (accompanied by an ominous smell of burning) but luckily the oil cap itself was still safely nestled on top of the tank. I took this as a good omen; where would I have found a replacement at 9am on a Sunday morning? Oil tank refilled and car cleaned up; I was ready to go once more.
Several uneventful hours later I arrived at my base for the next few days, Ambleside Youth Hostel. I was returning, once again, to walk with Country Adventures and it was great to see familiar faces and some new ones already in the lounge area.
Joe, the owner of Country Adventures, briefed us on the walks on our arrival evening. There were two options, high and low level, on both full days of walking and a third half day walk for those who wished to get a last taste of the hills before heading home.
On day one I chose to walk the classic Fairfield Horseshoe. I like to take advantage of long walks when I don’t have the kids as there’s no worrying about whether they’ll enjoy it or not. Our 11 mile route would, amongst others, take in the summits of Great Rigg, Fairfield and Dove Crag; around 3000 foot of ascent over the day.
Whilst Joe led the low level walk we were by accompanied by two experienced guides, Pete and Andy, on the high level route. One of the things I enjoy most about the holiday is leaving the route finding to someone else; navigation is not one of my strengths.
Starting from Rydal we tackled our first fell, Nab Scar. This warmed us up and got a lot of the day’s ascent out of the way early on. At the top we stopped briefly for a breather and to enjoy the views down to Rydal Water and Rydal cave which the low level group were visiting. It was also a good chance to catch up with the other guests, many of whom I’d walked with on previous holidays.
Our route continued on to Heron Pike, Great Rigg and eventually the plateau of Fairfield. There was a fair bit of up and down along the way but nothing too hard. All around were spectacular views although many of the higher peaks were hidden in clouds and the mist briefly interrupted views on Fairfield itself. We ate lunch in a relatively sheltered spot before following the horseshoe route back towards Ambleside.
The return walk took us alongside a seemingly never ending, but impressively built, wall which provided shelter from the wind. Towards the end there was a short scramble down from some rocks; I was quite glad for the warmer weather as I’d have had kittens if they’d been covered in ice.
However, the highlight of the walk was still to come. The sun sets early in December and although we’d hardly seen it all day it made a spectacular appearance as it sank behind the hills. The sky turned pink, yellow and orange; I took way too many photos. I’ve rarely viewed sunsets whilst still on the hills so this was a real treat although it did mean a quickening of pace to get down to Ambleside before darkness. Yet we still took time to watch a barn owl hunting low over the land. Definitely a sign that night was on its way.
That evening we dined in one of Ambleside’s Thai restaurants. Our waiter kept us entertained, the food filled us up and I think we all managed to pay the right contribution towards the meal. Afterwards the hardened drinking crew went to the pub whilst the lightweights, including me, headed back to the hostel to sleep.
On our second day the high level walk option took us to the summit of Red Screes. The group was smaller than before; the appeal of a pub visit on the low level walk being more attractive than a day of wind buffeting (as the forecast aptly described the approach of Storm Frank).
We started with a walk through Sykeside campsite, pretty empty at this time of year, but in a fantastic location and one I’ve bookmarked to return to during summer. A young sheepdog accompanied us through some waterlogged fields before taking itself off to round up some sheep.
The weather forecast hadn’t mentioned any rain but within about 15 minutes we stopped to pull on our waterproofs. I was envious of those with more expensive waterproof trousers that could be pulled on over the top of walking boots. I meanwhile hopped around on one leg whilst undoing muddy boots and gaiters in an attempt to get mine on.
Our route took us up gradually beside Caiston Beck, an easier alternative to the steep 1000ft ascent straight up Middle Dodd. However it was sometimes difficult to work out if we were walking in a stream or on a footpath and I couldn’t help thinking the other option might have been drier underfoot!
It felt much harder walking than the previous day. Even after we left the stream-path the slopes of Red Scree were pretty boggy and most of us ended up ankle deep in the mud. It also became progressively windier but I love walking in strong winds; they certainly make you feel alive. And they dry your waterproofs off.
The view from the top is evidently excellent in all directions but as you can see we were beaten by the mist. The group paused for Andy to take a summit photo before Pete pointed out that we weren’t quite on the highest point. No-one will ever know though and it was way too cold and windy to take another in the right spot!
The bogginess and mist accompanied our descent for a while and then suddenly we saw Lake Windermere emerge from the gloom. Lunch was eaten whilst sheltering from the wind beside another wall; I felt a little sorry for the solitary walker who had probably been enjoying some peace and quiet before we invaded.
Rather than head straight back to Ambleside by the road we took a short detour via a farm track past a field of Highland cows. Being a southerner I don’t get to see many of these so couldn’t resist a few photos.
We finished our day with a walk through the grounds of Stock Ghyll Force. One benefit of all the rain is that the Lake District waterfalls are at their most impressive. Stock Ghyll is on the outskirts of Ambleside so relatively accessible and it’s definitely worth popping to see if you’re in the area.
We were back in Ambleside pretty early and had a couple of hours spare before dinner at the hostel. I had vaguely thought about bringing my running gear with me to help with the marathon training but am glad I decided against it as my legs were starting to signal dissent. Equally optimistic I’d bought two books with me. I fared a little better with these and spent an enjoyable hour catching up on my reading.
Storm Frank arrived in the night and faced with a long journey ahead of me I chose not to walk on the third day. However the storm had the last word and followed me home. Six hours of driving along motorways in torrential rain was a stressful finish to the holiday but I’m already looking forward to next year’s walking break.