Ennerdale, with Bowness Knott on the left, as seen from the road in from Kirkland

Date completed: 28th July 2012.

Weather conditions:  Not great, but better than was forecast.  There was rain for the first half hour and I feared the worst, but after that the rain and clouds seemed to stay ahead of me. Only on High Stile did I get wet.

The Black Sail hut

Exterior of the Black Sail hut (note YHA sign).

Fells climbedGreat Borne (2019 feet above sea level, no, 186), Starling Dodd (2085’, no. 187), Red Pike (Buttermere) (2479’, no. 188), High Stile (2644’, no. 189), High Crag (2443’, no. 190)

Distance:  13 miles approximately.

Total ascent:  3600 feet approximately.

Start and end points: Started in Frizington, reached by the #31 bus from Whitehaven, which runs very frequently. Finished this first day of a two-day hike at the Black Sail hut (pictured).

Pub at end:  Black Sail is one of the more famous youth hostels. It has been a climbers’/walkers‘ hut for about a century, and has been owned by the YHA since the 1930s. The nearest road – indeed, the nearest other building – is at Gatesgarth, 2.6km (1.6 miles) away as the crow flies, and over 2 miles to walk, over Scarth Gap. I had long wanted to stay here, and it was definitely worth the effort. It does sell beer and wine, as well as dinner, breakfast and a packed lunch. For more observations, see the commentary.

Haystacks and Sear

View on the way down from High Crag: Haystacks in middle distance, the subsidiary summit of Seat in front.

Route: This is definitely a good walk, but it’s only the first part of a tough two-day hike so don’t underestimate it.

Ask the bus driver to drop you at the top of Yeathouse Road in Frizington, and head down it, bearing to the left when you see the sign for ‘Winder Gate’. Go through the gate when the road ends and then look to bear right, onto the old railway running below.

This is part of the Coast-to-Coast cycle route and route #71 in the National Cycle Network. You can just follow the signs all the way through the village of Kirkland as far as the road junction at grid reference NY086182 – your only hazard will be cyclists coming up silently behind you. At this junction, the cyclists turn to the left, but you should go to the right. There is no sign, but this is the road to Croasdale, which is one of England’s more remote villages: if it had a pub, it’d be paradise.

Red Pike summit

Red Pike summit, as the clouds rush back in.

After descending the slope of Cauda Brow, turn left at the next junction and go through the little village. The next building you come to is the farm of Whins, and here is where you must leave the road and go through the gate to the left, with its path signposted ‘Buttermere 4.5 miles’. This path is rather overgrown at first, but does improve as it heads up towards Floutern Pass.

At the top of the pass, head off right.  The fences are a bit awkward here; look for where the stiles run, so you don’t end up having to cross a fence without one.  Follow the fence up the slope of Steel Brow and eventually you will reach the top of Great Borne; the path is pretty clear all the way to the summit, but you can just follow the fence.

Starling Dodd from Red Pike

Looking back to Starling Dodd and Great Borne, from Red Pike.

In clear weather, Starling Dodd is visible ahead. Keep following the fence for a while longer but eventually bearing off right, over the grassy mound of the summit (and its creative cairn – see the Starling Dodd page).

The path should be good enough to see you all the way to Red Pike even in inclement weather, and after that the route should be unloseable – just keep to the height of land. High Stile is nearer than you expect – but to make up for it, High Crag is further away than you’d hope. But the ridge between all these summits is well defined and you won’t get lost. Stick close to the crags for the best views, but be careful!

Black Sail hut is visible in the distance – for the first and last time today – as you come off High Crag. The descent is steep, but the path down Gamlin End has been re-engineered since Wainwright’s day so although care is still needed it is not as rough as it sounds from his pages. Go on over the subsidiary summit of Seat, descend to Scarth Gap (again steep, but short), then follow the path down to the right into Ennerdale, where the Black Sail hut awaits you.

Steeple, from Starling Dodd

Steeple, from Starling Dodd

Physical Challenge, Part One, Commentary: The lack of public transport in the far west of the district – and the time it takes to get there in any case – mean that the logistics of the Western Fells have been the most complex of all. In the Far Eastern fells, where distances are still long, I can easily get there and back in a day even from home (note walk 53, where I did 16 miles and still got home for 5pm). But the Western Fells are a harder proposition.

In any case, there’s one more thing I would like to do, which is really what this walk gets based around. I probably could have pieced this part of the district together in other ways to avoid the need for a two-day hike. But I wanted to take the chance to stay at the Black Sail youth hostel.

Birkness Comb

One of High Stile’s two great coombes; Birkness Comb, between it and High Crag…

I was curious anyway, I think, but walking past it a couple of years ago (back on walk 16, Pillar) sealed the ambition.  I know there are plenty of places like this in Scandinavia, but they’re a rarity in England; a place right in the mountains, set up for walkers only, a place two miles from a road or even another building. I dislike camping, so this seems the only real option to spend the night genuinely amongst the fells.  I’m not eulogising the place – I’m just curious to know what it’s like.

So I’ve left the fells around it unbagged, until I could find a date, probably a weekend, on which the trip was practical. The trouble is I had to book it some time in advance – the hostel is often booked out, probably by single walking parties (it also lies on the path of the Coast to Coast walk).  Booking Doddick Farm for the weekend back in January – and thus fixing on firm dates for walks at an unpredictable time of the year, for weather – paid off in spades. Could I be lucky again this time?

Bleaberry Comb

… and the other, Bleaberry Comb, between High Stile and Red Pike.

Well, what we didn’t know at the time was that January had some of the best weather in all of 2012.  This was just as big a gamble. And when I got off the bus at Frizington at 10.30 and it had just started raining, leaving me pretty soaked not half an hour into the walk and before I’d even seen sight of a fell – it didn’t look like a good move.

But, I was lucky. Looking back to Whitehaven, I could see the clearer weather coming in off the sea and blowing the clouds ahead of me. Great views of Ennerdale (Water and valley) opened up ahead, the best of which I tried to capture, but the camera can’t really do it justice.

There was also this profound moment of silence, as I sat having a snack just down the slope from the summit of Great Borne, watching the clouds drift over the ridge ahead, but out of the wind so there was just nothing, nothing to be heard: it was like the world’s greatest movie but with no soundtrack. Pretty deep, huh? But you had to be there.

Pillar Rock, from High Stile

Strange view of Pillar Rock, from High Stile

The low point was the hailstorm on High Stile, when the weather finally caught up with me. But the dramatic ridge was probably worth it. And at the end of it, coming off High Crag, there was a first sight of the Black Sail hut, incredibly lonely-looking, but home for the night.

At 6pm I arrived, and the major advantage was that it was great to be able to sit down, have a beer, dinner, etc and eventually bed without having to face a bus or train home.  Sitting among the mountains didn’t really feature – there are no panoramic windows or anything – but it was cosy and not too crowded (there were 5 free beds in my dormitory, and had those guests been there that would have made the dining room very packed). I ended up on a table with three parasitology researchers from Edinburgh, one of whom turned out to be a lot better (or luckier) at Yahtzee than the other three of us put together, almost.

A good day, then, but with one nagging problem: despite its prominent position at the head of a valley that I was walking up all day, I didn’t see Great Gable once — it sat under low cloud throughout. And as this was my next destination, the omens for walk 60b were not great, therefore.

Ennerdale sunset

The end of the day…

2 Responses to “Walk 60a: The High Stile range”

  1. […] with all these two-day hikes, of which this was the third, I have broken it into two pages on here: Walk 60a (High Stile) and walk 60b (Great Gable). […]

  2. […] up over the High Stile ridge in far better conditions than I first did it seven years ago (see walk 60a). Three summits bagged — the eponymous High Stile and its neigbbours High Crag and Red Pike. […]

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