Hosteling in Lakeland
When the sun comes out after weeks of rain it makes me crave the Lake District. I think about stepping off the train at Oxenholme, waiting for the next train to Windermere and feeling full of excitement for the days ahead, thinking of the fells I’m going to climb and breathing in the fresh air. Here’s how, one year, a chance find in a book shop in London led Catherine Redfern to an amazing week of hiking.
One year, I’d managed to book a week away in the Lakes by myself. But apart from knowing that I was going to be using Youth Hostels to save costs, I wasn’t sure what to actually do with my walking when I got there.
Should I just be spontaneous each day and just wander about following whichever paths seemed nice? Should I follow an existing trail or route, like the Cumbria Way?
On the one hand, I had Wainwright’s voice resounding in my head – the bit that was always repeated at the start of the Coast to Coast series with Julia Bradbury – the bit about “aimless wandering” being a waste of time and “one must always have a destination in life as in walking” (something like that).
On the other hand, I had to admit a bit of aimless wandering sounded quite fun. I’ve never really just gone aimless wandering. Wouldn’t it be cool to actually just aimlessly wander on that path or this one on a whim, humming Ramble On by Led Zeppelin?
In fact, I decided, I didn’t feel like slogging up hundreds of fells. I wanted to wander, get lost, take my time and go slowly if I felt like it.
However, it gradually dawned on me that in the Lakes, if you don’t book ahead, accommodation can be a bit of a nightmare. So I thought at the very least I had to book my hostels in advance, which meant I simply couldn’t be totally spontaneous unless I camped, which I wasn’t going to do.
Whilst pondering what to do, I stumbled upon the answer whilst browsing in a really great second-hand bookshop in Wimbledon.
In a small shoebox filled with random postcards and old pamphlets, I found Youth Hostel Lakeland by J.B. West (see above picture), which I bought for £2.
This was published in 1947 by The Saint Catherine Press. It had a map on the front cover, and was part of a Footpath Guide series, designed to “go into the hip pocket”.
Excellent! I’d use J.B. West’s 1947 advice, pre-Wainwright of course, as a basis for my holiday!
Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.
The pamphlet starts with a slightly ominous, unattributed poem:
The hills are calling, calling to their own
And I was born beneath a northern sky.
And they who once that secret speech have known,
Shall hear it till they die.
West then goes on to talk generally about what’s required for hiking in the Lakes:
As regards equipment for a hostel tour in the Lakes, your first need is of a good stout boots [sic], comfortable and broken in
(if you are one of those people who have to break them in) before you arrive
Oh I definitely am.
nailed, but not over-nailed.
Um. Well, I can safely say my boots are definitely not over-nailed.
Secondly, a good light waterproof; I prefer oilskins. Some people use cycling capes; personally I do not like them – they are always awkward and sometimes dangerous in high wind.
No cycling capes. Got it.
Socks are important, too. My advice is to take as many spare pairs as your coupons will allow.
The rucksack should be waterproof and if it is of the frame type all the better, but do not over-load yourself.
Well, some advice never changes.
Each chapter describes a suggested route from one hostel to another. The first thing you notice is that there are no distances mentioned at all! This leaves you totally clueless about how long it might take you, or how hard each day would be. Anyway, taking into account West’s suggestions, I decided on a route, which had some differences to his original 1947 plan (which would take about two weeks to complete).
The walking was gentle and relaxed, and I could do as much or as little as I wanted – as long as I made it to the hostel each night.
So here’s what I did:
Day 1: Windermere to Ambleside.
Go up Orrest Head, of course.
West suggests then walking along the road to Ambleside, but I avoided the road and went via Troutbeck, then up and over Wansfell.
That night I stayed at the excellent Ambleside Backpackers independent hostel.
Day 2: Ambleside to Grasmere.
West recommends walking to Grasmere via Miller Bridge and Rydal, but I decided to go via Loughrigg and then down to Red Bank, and Grasmere.
I stayed at Thorney How YHA that night, which is now an independent hostel too.
Enjoying a cup of tea after dinner:
Day 3: Grasmere to Patterdale
I went via Great Tongue and Grisdale Tarn.
“Sallying forth from Grasmere Hostel, ready for another day of walking,”
“we see across the valley in the east the hills which stand between us and Patterdale, our next hostel. Shapely and colourful in their bracken garments, they invite rather than challenge.”
On this day I followed his advice to the letter.
The route does not go up and peaks today, because the next day is planned to be quite strenuous.
And of course, I stayed at Patterdale YHA, and watched The Apprentice with a large group of schoolboys in the lounge.
Day 4: Patterdale to Keswick.
I had planned this to be a rest day for shopping. I thought “I’m not walking all the way to Keswick today!”
But once I got going I just couldn’t stop.
This was a long day, and I did end up walking all the way to Keswick, just making it in time for last orders on evening meal.
West suggests going over Helvellyn via striding edge, then to Keswick via White Side, Thirlspot and St. John’s in the Vale.
But with my large rucksack, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be wobbling around on the edge. So I ended up going the long way round via Glenridding and then White Side.
But eventually I made it up Helvellyn!
Then, I came all the way down to Thirlmere…
…and walked via St John’s in the Vale all the way back to Keswick through buttercup filled fields.
This was a very long and tiring day indeed!
Keswick YHA was probably a lot different from West’s day as it’s one of the more modern hostels in the area.
Day 5: A rest day at Keswick
I spent a lot of time in the wonderful shop Temporary Measure, which I highly recommend, if only for their hilarious set of cards based on 1970s and 80s photos of children, often hiking.
I pottered about the shops, explored the second hand bookshops and wandered on the shores on Derwentwater.
Day 6: Keswick to Thirlmere
Today I departed from West’s advice completely as I had to make it back to Windermere to get the train in the evening.
So, I walked from Keswick to Thirlmere, and then to the road near Thirlspot to get the bus back to Windermere.
It was pouring down, so was not the best of days, but I’d had excellent weather the rest of the week, so I couldn’t complain.
So, thanks J.B. West! This is a fantastic, no pressure way to explore the Lakes. You can choose your own route between hostels and take it as easy or as hard as you wish.
I’d highly recommend it if you want to do a bit of “semi-aimless wandering” sometime….!
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