A last minute escape to the wild North Cumbria Lakes: Part One – Ennerdale Water Hike
by Dr Anthony D. Cliffe
An escape out to the wild North Lake District National Park Part One blog: The hike of Ennerdale Water
I’m not the first person to state the obvious, but, 2020 has been anything but ordinary. I tried to pen my yearly review of the year but got halfway through and got depressed (I may finish it at a later date). Spending most of the year in some form of lockdown has meant an unprecedented year for me of no travel.
At the tender age of just 3 weeks old, I was on a plane to another country and ever since then, I’ve been on a plane somewhere every year for 27 years. Until this year, my 28th year confined to the boundaries of my own country, what a drag. Since day one, travelling has been in my blood, 2018 was an amazing year of travel with 12 destinations in 12 months, including stops in Europe , Iceland, and Canada. Last year, 2019, was a lite year of travel, spending it in various UK destinations and of course, the wonderful Italian Lakes trip for the Italian GP. A sacrifice of travel while finishing off my PhD with the specific plan that 2020 I’d be back to plenty of travel. I had road trips planned to see friends all over the country, I had flights booked for Croatia, then Iceland and also to Canada to see family again. Instead, I went absolutely nowhere. No planes, no overnight stays, nothing. An overused word this year but it really was unprecedented.
The travel bans forced me into appreciating the beauty and hidden gems in my local area. They allowed me to take day trips to the lakes, which was fun, especially when the summer lockdowns were relaxed enough for Laura to come stay for a few days. We had a few trips to the Lakes and other places. Yet, nothing replaces being away for more than a day. Luckily, for my Dad’s 60th he wanted to get away and with Liverpool and Cumbria seemingly the only counties left in Tier 2, we were fortunate to spend a few nights away in the wild North Lakes.
I was happy to get away, the tier changes mercifully not changing for either of us the night before we left (I couldn’t have handled another last-minute cancellation!). I needed to get away too, this year has been challenging, work has been beyond stressful this year, and the pressure has been constant. This was my first break away from work for more than two days since May. My soul had been battered by stress and strain of work and general crapness of 2020. It needed a recharge. https://thedayinthelifeoftonycliffe.com/2020/07/28/100-days-of-my-lockdown-journey/
Driving up the Lake District I’ve always enjoyed, I adore motorway driving, even more so solo driving. Nothing but your music, a terrible singing voice and the views to pass the time. I headed up a few hours before the family so I could start walking straight away, as we couldn’t get the keys to the Air BnB cottage until 4 p.m. The drive up was fine until I passed Lancaster and as the M6 snaked it’s way up the mountains, so did the weather. One minute the snow-capped peaks peered below the low clouds, the next driving hail and snow reduced the visibility to near zero. For the final 1hr 30 of the 2hr 30 drive was in constant gripping of the steering wheel in horrendous conditions.
Thankfully, the weather abated for a time to allow me to navigate the single track, narrow twisty icy roads of North Cumbria. I eventually arrived at Ennerdale Water, the furthest north lake of the Lake District National park. Up this far, is a world away from the tourist and commercialised South Lakes, you won’t find any pleasure boats, trinket shops or tourists up here. Just pure scenery and weather-worn hikers up in these parts. In fact, Ennerdale is the only Lake in the national park that doesn’t have a road around it, giving you a sense of its remoteness.
Stepping out of my car onto the small free gravel car park, the icy wind was enough to waken any tiredness away from the drive. Lacing up my old trusty walking boots and setting my walking poles to length, I regretted not putting my thermal walking trousers on instead opting for my normal ones. A mental note was made to not make that mistake tomorrow! Walking through the path away from the car park, the trees gave way to reveal the snow-capped peaks of Ennerdale Valley. Whitecaps seemingly blending into to browns and greens with the roar of a rushing waterfall, a white raging streak down the side of the mountain as another band of sleet and snow made the peak disappear before reappearing again, adding more intensity to the waterfall.
“I watched as the light changed almost minute by minute, storm clouds enclosed and visibility dropped, swirling, tossing and tumbling before releasing the mountain from its grip.“
The view was breathtaking, as was the real feel of -8c wind that rattled down the side of the valley as I got closer to the Lake. Tomorrow I was to walk the Lake’s entirety, but for now, I planned to make the most of the awful weather to get some pictures of the Lake. With snow showers raging and then stopping as if on a switch, I watched as the light changed almost minute by minute, storm clouds enclosed and visibility dropped, swirling, tossing and tumbling before releasing the mountain from its grip. Each time I felt I had enough of the frozen fingers, the light or the clouds would change and entice me in to stay a little longer to capture its beauty. In the whole few hours I was there, I saw only four people. The harsh weather only added to its remoteness. It felt very much like being in Iceland, let alone England.
With the light fading quickly this far north and news of the cottage being open, I headed the short drive back to the welcome warm embrace of the Air BnB called The Heckbarley in Ennerdale Bridge. A quaint, quiet, small village surrounded by cows, a river, two pubs looked incredibly inviting, just a shame they weren’t open due to restrictions. The Air BnB was terrific, a large detached house, with plenty of bathrooms and bedrooms, with amazing views from sides of the house of the mountain, especially from the heated conservatory. I got the room with the two skylights, a double and a single. It was a shame that Emma wasn’t with us, Em had planned to come up with us for the few days but with a change in restrictions and not being in our bubble at the last minute she had to cancel. That’s three trips together this year were restrictions had changed last minute for us, Croatia, Iceland and now this! After food and planning the next day’s hike before I knew it, I was out like a light.
The watery winter sun was lighting up the crisp azure morning sky as I made my lunch, finished off the rest of the toast and checked and double-checked all my gear. Poles, boots, thermals, buff, spare clothes and the hardest decision, what camera equipment to take. Hiking is challenging as it is, even tougher with heavy camera equipment. The tripod alone is weighty enough, add in the body, the lenses and it all adds up on your back! I decided to leave my heavy long lens in the cottage and leave my DJI Gimbal there too, opting for stills rather than video. If Em was with me, I’d have taken the gimbal but making videos just isn’t the same by yourself, plus every gram saved is a godsend on the mountain.
Today I set off to walk Ennerdale water, a 7-mile hike that included scrambling, river crossings and plenty of ice! The west side where I started, is the far more challenging side of the Lake, with little to no defined paths to follow. The paths being nothing more than trodden stones to navigate the way through scree and not to mention the giant peak that one must traverse. Either that or get your feet very wet! Whereas the East side of the Lake was a more gentle and flat gravel path, suitable for bikes and prams. I, of course, opted to tackle the more adventurous hiking route, the Westside first. It was -3c when I started my hike, not a breath of wind out, the sun beaming, my breath drifting effortlessly into the sky, the snowcapped peaks glistening in the sun with every crunch of my feet on the icy ground. It felt great to be hiking again, picking out places to put your feet, feeling your body warm-up with every touch, your soul drinking in the views as your body gulps in the cold air. The mountain path got significantly steeper, the path disappearing into an almost verticle rock face. Before tackling that section of anglers crag, I set up my camera gear to take some pictures.
After watching a few groups of avid hikers scramble up the cliff face ahead of me, I packed my gear away, my poles too, they’d be of little upon this steep terrain, took a deep breath and headed up the rock face. Scrambling is something I haven’t done for a while, for those who don’t know what that is, scrambling is a halfway crossover between hiking and rock climbing, where there is no defined path, so you have to use both your feet and hands In order to get up the mountain.
I was very grateful for my time on the PhD with the Outdoor Education Students on their caving expedition field trips. I spent the day learning to scramble, free rock climb and caving. Those few hours in -5c in the snow in the Yorkshire dales, including scrambling up an actual waterfall was excellent training for this steep but short scramble up the Crag. Scrambling would be more straightforward if you didn’t have to wear size 12 hiking boots! I like the puzzle of finding places to wedge your feet and then finding obvious places to put your hand in the rocks to pull yourself up. Once again, thankful to have taken up Yoga and core strength training over lockdown, which proved vital to make the Crag easy work.
Dropping down from the Crag, the lake view opened up, and it was a stunning reward for the scramble’s hard, heavy work. Pushing further south to the end of the Lake was far more demanding than I anticipated. With constant scree, groundwater rushing out of the rocks, ice and slippy moss made slow work of my progress. I was thankful for having my walking pole with me, a few times my foot slipped out from underneath me on black ice on a rock, the poles saving me more than once from at best a broken arm, at worst, a cracked head or back. With no roads here or the fact I hadn’t seen anyone for over an hour, you’d be in a terrible spot for help if something happened in this remote location.
The remoteness had a charm to it, however. Not seeing anyone for an hour, no noise of cars, nothing but the lapping waves of the Lake and the still winter air. The world and all its covid chaos seemed a long way away. After pushing further down the Lake, jumping over rivers and through scrubland, nearly falling a few more times the land eventually got easier.
The scrub and rocks gave way to grass and frozen ground which allowed me to quicken up until disaster.
As ever on the mountain one lapse in concentration is all it takes to instantly change an enjoyable walk into a disaster. In an instant, my horizon tilted, cold, muddy peat water topped over the inside of my boot, I was up to my knee in a frozen peat bog, thankful for once again my walking sticks! The left one had caught a rock, and my brain in autopilot made sense of what was happening before I did, tensing the muscles in my core and the left arm, using all its strength to arrest the slide. My right stick stayed on frozen ground. With two heaves, my foot was released from the bog. I was upright—nothing but a soaking and cold leg and socks for my troubles, thankfully nothing broken. As I picked the path up again and crossed the top of the Lake, still cursing myself for being so careless to not notice I had wandered off track and how despite a now frozen foot, it could have been a lot worse.
At least the views helped!
Now on the Lake’s Eastside, a well-placed path used by a logging company made things far easier and quicker. This side of the Lake was far busier, with walkers making the most of the far flatter and more straightforward path. I felt accomplished that I’d done the hard way! Passing through forests that ran through the East side of the Lake, another sharp climb up before veering off the road, back onto a scramble down a peak to pick up the less worn trail at the shore of the Lake. People choose to stick to the road/path that goes inland before joining the shore further up, but I wanted to walk the Lake as it was intended. After just over 3 hours later, I was back at the car, alive, thankful and while tired, full of life of what had been an excellent hike indeed!
Places to stay:
Few Air BnBs in Ennerdale to use, however, you’re 30 minutes drive from Kendal to the East or 30 minutes away from Whitehaven and Cockermouth in the West.
Head to Bleach Green Car park (free 24 hour car park) in Ennerdale, roughly 2 hours 30 minutes from Liverpool. Careful of the untreated narrow and steep roads on the approach to Ennerdale and the Lake, take it easy!
7 mile walk start at the car park and go over the bridge and turn right at the weir. Follow the unmarked path south along the lake, you can’t miss Anglers crag (it’s huge!). If you want a shorter and easier route, turn left at the bridge and follow the marked gravel path around the Eastside of the lake.
Places to visit:
Ennerdale water of course! But also visit the Stone circles just north of Ennerdale.
END OF PART ONE