Ennerdale, Black Sail and Haystacks, Cumbria

Ennerdale, in the north west of the Lake District receives relatively few visitors compared to other parts of the Lakes.  It requires more of an effort to get to, but rewards walkers and cyclists with some outstanding mountain adventures.

Early morning view over Ennerdale lake
Early morning view over Ennerdale lake

Ennerdale YHA

We were spending one night at Ennerdale Youth Hostel, then walking to Black Sail Youth Hostel for the following night. Black Sail is the most remote hostel in England and inaccessible by car. It’s a converted shepherd’s bothy, sleeping sixteen people in three bedrooms. Due to its location on the Coast to Coast path it’s popular with walkers so we booked many months in advance.

The drive to Ennerdale took longer than expected due to a very busy M6. Away from the motorway we had a straightforward trip to Ennerdale hostel, although the last couple of miles is on a forest track, adding to the remoteness of the location. We arrived pretty late so were in bed before long.

The next day dawned warm and sunny, not something that can always be guaranteed in the Lakes! After a relaxed breakfast, we made our pack lunches and set off for Black Sail.

The route to Black Sail
The route to Black Sail

We travelled with walking friends who had a big day in the mountains planned, ending at Black Sail, but this wasn’t feasible with the kids. Instead we took the straightforward route to Black Sail, walking a well defined track along the valley floor. It’s about 4 miles to the hostel via this route so we arrived mid-morning.

Black Sail hostel
Black Sail hostel

Black Sail YHA

I’d seen plenty of pictures of Black Sail before as I’ve wanted to visit for sometime but the first glimpse of the building was still exciting. Lakeland peaks surround the hostel, which faces out onto an intense green panorama. Despite the number of photos I took it still remains hard to convey how stunning the location is.

View from Black Sail YHA
View from Black Sail YHA

The hostel kitchen, common room and a toilet remain open all day, providing passing walkers with the option to use its facilities in return for a small donation. The hostel reception opens at 5pm, so after a short break we headed up Haystacks, the hill directly behind the hostel.

A walk up Haystacks

Haystacks, at 1959ft above sea level, just misses out on the title of mountain. However it is a popular fell, and was Alfred Wainwright’s favourite hill, so much so that his ashes are scattered in the tarn on top. We took the path up to Scarth Gap, where we met large numbers of walkers coming from Buttermere.

View from Haystacks
View from Haystacks

From Scarth Gap we had an easy scramble to the summit. The kids loved this, although you do need a head for heights.

Scrambling on Haystacks
Scrambling on Haystacks

Innominate Tarn was a busy lunch spot. It also appeared to be the resting place of others apart from Wainwright if the bunch of carnations in the water was anything to go by. Whilst I can understand the sentiment they appeared completely out of place in the mountain landscape.

Continuing on, we passed Blackbeck Tarn, glad that the weather had been dry recently as the bog cotton signalled a rather marshy area. The next section went steeply downhill with stone steps much of the way down. I was happy we weren’t going in the opposite direction!

Walking past Blackbeck Tarn
Walking past Blackbeck Tarn

The final part to the hostel took us over grass covered moraines, and involved a couple of stream crossings.  With so little rain, the water was low and conveniently placed stepping stones helped us keep our feet dry.

Overnight at Black Sail

Back at the hostel we waited for our friends to return from their walk. It was late afternoon when we spotted them coming off the peaks opposite. They’d all been excited walking down as they had mistaken the hostel generator for an ice cream freezer! Once the generator was turned on it was hard to mistake it for anything else, as it certainly shattered the peace. We couldn’t really complain though as it meant we got a cooked dinner.

Black Sail Youth Hostel (with generator/ice cream cart on far right)
Black Sail Youth Hostel (with generator/ice cream cart on far right)

We’d booked an evening meal at the hostel, which I was rather glad of as it saved us having to carry food in. Dinner was of the one pot variety – tomato and lentil soup, rice and beef curry or vegetable tagine, followed by apple crumble and custard. It wasn’t haute cuisine but after a day in the hills it was tasty and filling.  Like the hostels of old, we mucked in and after each course washed up our plates and cutlery.

Dinner was followed by an impromptu kids cricket match.  Not the easiest bowling or fielding conditions given the slopes, rough grass and boggy areas but the kids didn’t seem to mind.

We slept well that night. The bunk room was basic, and any trip to the toilet would have necessitated a trip outside to the facilities. Next morning we again took advantage of the hostels catering facilities with fried breakfasts for all. We sang Happy Birthday to one of the other visitors at breakfast, who was celebrating his 50th with a trip to the hostel.

Our route out took us back along the valley floor, although for variety we walked on the opposite side of the river. Our night at Black Sail had been worth the wait, and I hope it’s one of the memories the kids remember in adulthood.

More info:

  • The walk up Haystacks takes you into mountain territory, for which you should be properly equipped and prepared for.
  • To book the Youth Hostels visit http://www.yha.org.uk/

Cycling the Kennet and Avon cycle route, Berkshire

Looking for a flat family friendly cycle route in Berkshire? Then why not cycle from Newbury to Reading along the Kennet and Avon cycle route. This is part of Sustrans route 4, and for most of the way follows the canal towpath.  It’s a 19 mile stretch but easily shortened if you prefer a shorter ride.

Cycling out of Newbury on the Kennet and Avon canal cycle path
Cycling out of Newbury on the Kennet and Avon canal cycle path

Our journey started with a couple of train rides to reach Newbury. It was a little stressful getting four bikes on the trains, as despite it being a Sunday, they were packed with shoppers and there was no dedicated bike storage.  On the second train we were blessed with a helpful conductor who helped us organise a place for our bikes and find seating.

Once in Newbury we followed the signs to the Wharf to pick up the cycle trail.  We’d managed to coincide our ride with a waterways festival, so the first mile out of Newbury had plenty of walkers and families out for the afternoon.

Cycling past the Kennet and Avon canal locks
Cycling past the Kennet and Avon canal locks

After a couple of miles the Sustrans route leaves the canal towpath and takes you through Thatcham. Whilst you are still on a dedicated cycle path it is initially next to a very busy road, past houses and industrial units. Not the scenic and relaxing ride that I had in mind! An alternative is to stay on the towpath and walk (as it turns into a footpath only), or perhaps start the route from Thatcham railway station where it picks up the canal path again.

After rejoining the towpath you once again feel like you’re back in the countryside.  We stopped for a belated picnic, and hastily ate our sandwiches as it was already approaching mid-afternoon.

Picnic time
Picnic time

Back onto our bikes again, and a quiet stretch of the canal. It was a windy day so I was glad of the decision to ride west to east as it wouldn’t have been much fun cycling into the wind.  We saw quite a few birds, including grebes, coots and Canada geese but I didn’t spot the hoped for blue streak of a kingfisher at any point.

kennet4
Negotiating the gates

Some parts of the towpath lead directly onto roads, albeit quiet country ones.  It was easy to tell when road access was getting near as the number of people we’d see would increase.  A particularly busy spot was near a pub garden that backed onto the canal. I would have liked to stop there for  a refreshment break but we were already pushed for time so it was not to be. Fortunately we had our water bottles with us.

kennet5

Near Reading the track temporarily diverts away from the canal, past some fishing lakes, and then alongside the M4. You return once again to the towpath, with plenty of permanently moored houseboats lining the canal.

Away from the canal path
Away from the canal path

Arriving into the busy city of Reading is a shock, but the towpath held one last surprise.  Along the opposite side of the bank are houses with gardens leading directly onto the canal.  Every other house has a kayak or small boat ready for canal exploration.  It’s great to think that a row of suburban houses has a secret canal hidden behind them.

We felt a little out of place walking back through Reading centre, amongst all of the weekend shoppers. Nethertheless I was happy to have spent my afternoon cycling rather than stuck in shops!

If you fancy a walk instead you might be interested in a Cold War Greenham Common walk, a windmill walk at Bedwyn or viewing the Caen Hill locks. All of them include various stretches of the Kennet and Avon canal.

More info:

  • Sustrans map of the route: http://www.sustrans.org.uk/ncn/map/route/kennet-and-avon-cycle-route
  • The route is flat so suitable for family cycling.   The obvious danger is the canal itself, as in places it would be very easy to cycle off the towpath and into the canal!
  • We cycle regularly so the route length wasn’t an issue. If you’re not used to cycling you could easily shorten the route by doing an out and back cycle ride.

Seven Sisters Country Park, near Seaford, East Sussex

Whilst visiting friends on the south coast we made a quick trip to the Seven Sisters Country Park, near Seaford.

The park is easily accessible from the A259 and offers walking trails, canoeing on the Cuckmere River and a valley floor cycle route. Most visitors come here to see the Seven Sisters, the name given to the chalk cliffs.  If you’re hoping to photograph the classic postcard view of these, ensure you take the footpath to Seaford Head on the opposite side of the Cuckmere River.

As it was a sweltering hot day we decided to walk the 2 km easy access path down to the shingle beach at Cuckmere Haven.  This appears to be the most popular option, as there were many other families and groups of language students walking the same route.

Walking in the Seven Sisters Country Park, near Seaford
Walking in the Seven Sisters Country Park, near Seaford

After reaching the beach, the lure of walking to the top of the first cliff was too great to ignore.  The kids had no intention of walking any further on such a hot day, and stayed on the beach (with a responsible adult of course).

Seven Sisters
Seven Sisters

The path up was straightforward, although rather steep in places. We took a short break half way up, supposedly to admire the view but really it was just a convenient excuse for a breather.  Looking back down we could see the artificially straightened River Cuckmere and the salt lagoon just north of the beach.

View back down over the beach
View back down over the beach

The view from the top of the cliff is one of the best in southern England. At this point I was very glad not to have bought youngest son up with me as the cliff edges are completely open and accessible to all. Visitors are, quite rightly, left to judge the safety themselves rather than be faced with fences or keep out signs.

From the top of the Seven Sisters
From the top of the Seven Sisters

We sat on top for a while, reluctant to leave such a magnificent view. Eventually the prospect of a cold drink at the cafe appealed and we headed back  towards the park entrance.  Despite it being late afternoon a bus deposited another large group of visitors just as we were leaving – I hope they enjoyed their visit as much as I did.

We visited the Seven Sisters again in 2017, this time as part of our South Downs Way walk. The view was no less spectacular!

More info:

  • There is a seasonal visitor centre and cafe next to the car park.  You can pick up leaflets with walk routes and a map from the car park and bus stop.
  • The bus stop is opposite the visitor centre, with frequent buses from Brighton, Seaford and Eastbourne.
  • The trail to the beach is designated as easy access, and is suitable for wheelchairs and buggies.   Once you reach the beach you’ll have to contend with shingle.

Further info: http://www.sevensisters.org.uk

High wire adventures at TreeRunners, Andover

I was browsing Trip Advisor for something to do at the weekend and came across TreeRunners, which offers courses similar to Go Ape. I was pleased to find they were suitable for 6+ years (subject to a height restriction), and as they’re based in Andover, Hampshire only an hours drive from home.

Ten minutes later and I’d booked us onto the TreeRunners Junior Adventure for the following day. This course is aimed at the under 10’s, although older children and adults are welcome as well.

Next morning found us driving along a dusty farm track which eventually took us into Harewood Forest. It’s certainly not a place you’d just stumble upon. We parked and then went through the registration process, signing away all liability. It also involved confirming that our children weren’t pregnant!

The session started with a short safety briefing and then we were shown how to put on our harnesses. TreeRunners use a special clip on system so once you’re clipped in at the start you don’t need to keep re-attaching yourself as you do at Go Ape.  I was rather glad of this as it meant I didn’t need to keep checking the kids were safely secured.

Clipped on and ready to go
Clipped on and ready to go

We started with the white course, which is the easiest one, at around 3 metres off the ground. Youngest son has always been pretty fearless so I was rather surprised when he decided he couldn’t do the first obstacle. Older sister had whizzed across the balancing logs without a thought but it took a lot of encouragement to get my son over.

Eyeing up the next obstacle
Eyeing up the next obstacle

Once past the balancing logs he picked up confidence and the next couple of obstacles were very straightforward.  We reached the first zip wire and again there were a few wobbles about launching from the safety of the platform (ah, OK that was just me).  After you jump though you realise that you just have to trust your harness and go for it!

End of the zip wire
End of the zip wire

There is another zip wire at the end of the white course, and by the time we reached this we jumped off without hesitation. I think the smiling face in the photo says it all!

The start of the yellow course at TreeRunners
The start of the yellow course at TreeRunners

We moved on to the yellow course, which is higher and a little harder.  It starts with a climb up a rope tube and moves onto a rather tricky zigzag plank walk.   I could feel my legs trembling on this one, so was glad to get to the other side.  It was much harder than the photo below suggests!

Zigzags at TreeRunners, harder than they look!
Zigzags at TreeRunners, harder than they look!

The zigzags were followed by a  rope net and balancing wire obstacles.

Rope net at TreeRunners
Rope net at TreeRunners

The kids both enjoyed the rope swing, where you have to sit on the rope and swing over to the wooden platform opposite.  We did somehow manage to get a bit caught up in the ropes and wires though, which took a little sorting out.

We managed to go round the courses a couple more times before our time was up. Due to safety restrictions, we did find there were a few bottlenecks whilst we waited for those in front to complete obstacles but nothing too major.

The courses for 10+ looked exciting with levels ranging from green, red and blue to the extreme black. These were much higher, and with some rather unique obstacles, including a bicycle and a snowboard. I’d loved to have gone on the zip wires, but I think I’d have been pretty scared on the black run.

So, what’s my verdict?  The kids had a great time and after a few initial nerves found that they could step out into the unknown and survive! The white and yellow courses are very much designed for children, and as an adult I found the supporting wires were at the wrong height which meant I had to rearrange myself on some of the platforms.  Whilst TreeRunners state that adults don’t need to go on with the children, I do think the younger ones need a parent on hand to help the first time if necessary.

Kids view:

It was brilliant, I recommend it to everyone.  The zip wire was best because it was fast.

More info:

  • The toilet facilities are very basic, in part of an old paintball course. Whilst the rest of the site has had a lot of money spent on it can I just say that leaking toilets and slugs on toilet seats do not create a good impression!
  • The kiosk sells drinks and some snacks. You can also bring your own picnic.
  • Further details at www.treerunners.com

Costs:

  •  The Junior Adventure costs £15 for 1.5 hours.  Older children (10+) pay £20 and adults £25 for the harder courses, although this is for 2.5 hours.