Wild camping in Cumbria

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I'm bursting. Crossing my legs. Trying not to picture rivers or waterfalls. I'll do anything to avoid leaving my tent for a pee. It's not just the biblical rain lashing against the canvas; it's the chilling reports of a ghostly horse roaming the local Cumbrian fells with a rotting human corpse strapped to its saddle.

Camping is rarely so remote, weekend adventures rarely so removed from daily life. And that's exactly what Mark Reid wants. The mountain guide's new Out of Your Comfort Zone excursion pushes wild camping to its geographical limits, packaging it with glorious guided hikes, navigation instruction and survival tips for nervous rookies.

Reid, who's aiming the breaks at walkers keen to "skill up", families looking for a bonding trip and unconventional stag parties, welcomes inexperienced campers. But this weekend – with his first recruits – he's in for a shock.

Our group includes Rebecca, who recently lived in Mayfair and regards anywhere outside London as out of her comfort zone, and Jane – a begrudging companion for a hiking-obsessed partner – who believes tents are the work of Satan. She hires motorhomes to sleep at festivals, plans to tackle Cumbria's highest fells in green fashion trainers – "boots make my feet look like horses' hooves" – and has spent the previous week Googling "extra-springy camp beds".

At least she'll enjoy the first night. Elterwater's Britannia Inn – a white-walled cocoon in the shadow of the Langdales – answers her call of the mild. Hell it's lovely, a converted 500-year-old beamed farmhouse and forge that offers open fires, cosy rooms and fresh seasonal grub.

As we tuck into honey-glazed lamb marinated in mint, the air's heavy with camping horror stories: inch-long earwigs, sheep dung accidentally kicked into cooking pots, mattresses deflating in storm-soaked tents. Jane's partner has clearly been economical with the truth. She knows there'll be an element of camping – hopefully with hot showers and a nearby cafe – but has been lured north by the promise of boutique pubs and a gentle scenic stroll. This could get ugly.

It will certainly get wild. Driving to the hike's departure point tests the car's clutch on the gaspingly steep switchbacks of the Wrynose and Hardknott passes. The western lakes are vast, uncluttered, less commercialised – and heartbreakingly beautiful.

Our target is The Woolpack, an old drovers' pub where we're to receive a pre-trip briefing. Reid, who teaches navigation skills and leads team-building hikes, treats our night of wild camping as a mini-expedition. After outlining the route – up to Eskdale Moor and Great How to camp on Scafell's southern flanks before scaling its peak the following morning – he turns to legal issues. Wild camping, permitted in Scotland and on Dartmoor, is a tolerated tradition in the privately-owned Lake District, providing we camp above walled farmland and leave behind nothing but footprints.

Slipping into full-on survival mode, Reid explains he'll lead us from our comfort zones into our stretch zones, where we'll hopefully acquire new wilderness skills. After a quick lesson in packing tents, stoves and sleeping gear – we're each carrying 15kg – the briefing finishes with us outlining our individual goals for the trip. "Survival," snaps Jane, reluctantly lacing her boots. "And Weight Watchers points. It's worth at least five glasses of wine. It's the only salvation." For the first time the guide looks puzzled – and slightly alarmed.

It's an idyllic start. Eskdale Valley, prostrate beneath the magnificent bowl of Crinkle Crags, Bowfell and Scafell Pike, is licked by sun. We are serenaded by the babbling River Esk and occasional toots from La'al Ratty, as the narrow-gauge Ravenglass & Eskdale Railway is known.

Walking couldn't be flatter. Or easier. Jane, who added last-minute weight to her rucksack by including a makeup bag, mirror and hairbrush – "just because I'm hiking, I don't have to look like a dog" – seems impressed. There's even memorable architecture. The 12th-century St Catherine's Church is swaddled by a beautifully manicured graveyard containing the extraordinary granite hunk of Thomas Dobson's headstone. The huntsman's eerie sculpted face peers at you with an enigmatic half-smile – a Cumbrian Mona Lisa flanked by fox and hound.

We pass a handsome Lakeland house that inspires townie dreams of rural escape, sip a lunchtime pint at Boot's Brook House Inn and rise easily up the north side of Eskdale. Reid takes advantage of the sunny mood to evangelise about the confidence-boosting value of leaving our comfort zones, quoting Edmund Hillary after he'd climbed Everest. "It's not the mountain we conquer, it's ourselves."

Rebecca and Jane nod eagerly. This can't last. The clouds start to mass 20 minutes later. As we reach the end of a 250m climb, the first fat raindrops thwack against our Gore-Tex. By the time we reach the stone circles and prehistoric mounds of Brat's Moss, it's pouring. A divine panorama over a silvery Solway Firth to distant Scottish hills vanishes in mist before our eyes.

We break for a restorative cuppa at a bleak lodge known as the Blair Witch House, gazing across Burnmoor Tarn to the peaks of Kirk Fell, Black Sail and Great Gable. Apparently we're now reconnecting with the way our ancestors survived for the last 60,000 years before urbanisation, email and iPhones. No one cares. The downpour's intensifying, driven into our faces by a gusting westerly.

And the walking's getting tougher. Far tougher. Our boots squelch through heavy mud in boggy, knobbly moorland. I turn round and do a double take. Jane is now carrying an open umbrella. We're in one of England's lairiest, most isolated spots but she appears to be strolling down the Kings Road.

She's also leaking. Damp is rising up her back and down her legs. "I feel like I've peed myself. It reminds me of Duke of Edinburgh when I was cold, wet and shattered. It's exactly what I dreaded."

Rebecca joins in: "I'm craving a hot bath."

Reid vainly attempts to raise morale. "I'm not sure this line of thinking helps." He points to our final climb up the steep slope of Broad Tongue. "It's only a 260m rise – about the height of 26 semi-detached houses. Not too bad."

We grind up, stopping for a breather after 27 bungalows. By the top we've been walking for six hours. Dense curtains of rain open and shut theatrically. Our camping area on Great How is only 500m away but visibility, daylight and energy are fading fast.

Reid studies his map, swears several times and decides to head back to the safety of Eskdale Moor – an experienced guide ensuring we stay well outside our panic zones. It means the last hour's grim climb has been in vain. Jane slumps to the ground and sits, brolly raised, staring silently into thin air – a surreal Rene Magritte figure in the wilderness. She has entered her twilight zone.

But the retreat is a good call. We find a textbook location for wild camping. Sheltered in the lee of Illgill Head, it's flat, free of sharp stones that can tear a tent, and close to fast-running water. There's space to go to the loo, well away from steep drops – the bete noire of incontinent, myopic ramblers.

I'd happily reveal our spot, but then I'd have to kill you. Wild camping etiquette is to keep locations secret to avoid over-use. The only downside is the horror movie setting. We're bunking down slap-bang on the Corpse Road – the route once used to transport the dead to St Catherine's. One horse still haunts the moor with its decaying human cargo.

Oh Lord. It's already an unsettling time to remain in the mountains. Known as homecoming, this is the hour when people traditionally descended to the safety of lower ground. To stay is to contradict hard-wired human knowledge.

But there's little time to be spooked. As the rain eases we erect tents, helped by the ever-patient Reid, pull on dry clothes, collect water and boil chilli con carne in the bag. Jane scoffs her's immediately and vanishes into her tent. "Sod campsite camaraderie, I'm done. Night."

She misses the best moment of the trip. Under a vast moon that daubs scudding clouds with ochre light, we sit in a prehistoric stone circle, sip whisky and munch chocolate. It's utterly magical. Sadly it's only a brief interlude from the flood. Within hours, we're again buffeted by relentless weather fronts. Someone appears to be throwing bucket after bucket of water over the tent. Sleep is near impossible.

"Bloody hell, this is unbelievable," says Rebecca early next morning, applying her Kiehl's anti-wrinkle defence cream with survival molecules and corallina extract. "Why in God's name are we out here?"

Reid, who claims "it's the worst weather I've ever camped in", remains magnificently stoic. He helps pack sodden gear and braves the downpour to fire up an early morning brew. His golden hour – "the sun's up, you're alone in the mountains with a coffee" – has literally been washed away.

But wild camping's nothing if not flexible. Plan A's early-morning ascent of Scafell was abandoned last night. Now Plan B – climbing Illgill Head with its 2,000ft wall of vertiginous scree above Wast Water – is also scrapped.

Time for Plan C: the pub. As we descend past Eel Tarn into lush Eskdale, the guide continues to point out plants and supply navigation tips. It's almost possible to forget the night's grim weather. Almost. But Cumberland Ale and pizzas from the Woolpack's woodfired oven come as blessed relief.

Hours later and, oh irony, there's a cloudless sky and soft pink dusk. Perhaps it's the warmth, or alcohol, but our storm-tossed adventure now garners surprisingly positive reviews. Jane admits it was a trial, but was mesmerised by the scenery, surprised at her fitness and feels more confident for enduring high-altitude discomfort.

"I feel an incredible sense of achievement for spending a night in the wild," she tells me over a Chilean red wine. "I'd love to experience that early golden hour with warm sun and hot coffee. In fact I'd go again if the trip was a little more luxurious, perhaps with a wild massage."

Mr Reid, please take note.

• Team Walking (01423 871750, teamwalking.co.uk) has bespoke or group two-day Out of Your Comfort Zone trips for ?109pp including guiding, camp meals and equipment. Half-day and one-day trips are also available. The Britannia Inn (015394 37210, britinn.net) has doubles from ?80 B&B. The Woolpack Inn (019467 23230, woolpack.co.uk) has doubles from ?60 B&B

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