Thursday was always predicted to be the worst day in terms of weather but even so the forecast I picked up on Wednesday morning seemed better than before I left home. How wrong I was.
The gentle patter of rain on the tent woke me after a night when I’d actually got a decent amount of sleep, in contrast to the night before. With no let up in the rain, I packed a wet tent and headed down to Patterdale for supplies, passing a stream of people climbing up from the valley, most of whom remarked on the early start I must have had from Shap. Telling them that I hadn’t actually started from Shap and had actually only just set-off from the tarn started to wear a bit thin after a few iterations, so after a while I just smiled knowingly and left them to their delusions.
I went into the Post Office in Patterdale to stock up my larder hoping for some camping meals. None. Plenty of hats and pointless walking gadgets, which you can pretty much guarantee finding in a small “bit-of-everything” village store in a small Lakeland village. And it was on that premise that I’d made the assumption that they’d have a few Wayfarers, at the very least, tucked away in a corner. Nope, zilch, rien, zip.
You’d have thought that the many coast to coasters who pass through here would be looking for some reasonable hiking food. No, instead it was back to the 70’s with Vesta curries and Stagg chilli. All the pasta meals involved cheese so they were out too. I walked around several times completely thrown by the pants selection (by which I mean rubbish rather than the array of walking trousers). In the end I opted for a couple of tins (yes, bloody tins!) of the Stagg and topped it up with some Uncle Ben’s rice, two oranges, and a couple of sachets of hot chocolate.
After a craving for Mars bars the day before, a couple of those went in too. And then out came the hot sausage baguette, 11 inches of Cumberland that disappeared far too quickly for decency, despite the fact that it was a bit too well done, because obviously they cook them in a batch and then reheat them one at a time when there’s a customer. I sat on the front step of the shop to scoff the foot-long repast, reading the various hiking-related notices on the board outside the shop, and watching the bustle of the day passing in front of me.
I set off along the road to Hartsop with the route for the rest of the day still not quite worked out, but with a vague intention to head into the hills further south along the Kirkstone road. In the trance like state that road walking can sometimes induce, I briefly considered walking all the way up to the Kirkstone Pass, picking off Troutbeck Tongue and then heading for Kentmere. That would have been quite an epic walk as I was feeling the weight difference after my reloading.
A far better plan, surely, was to walk over Gray Crag, Thornthwaite Crag and up onto High Street and aim to camp somewhere east of there: exactly where depending on progress. That would ensure that I’d focus on, and finish, all of the most out of the way fells, leaving only relatively straightforward day walks from Patterdale. A brief stop in the bus shelter at Hartsop, more interesting notices (this time laying out in glorious detail the intricacies and procedures of local parish politics), and the plan was set. Up to High Street via Gray Crag then aim for a camp somewhere around Branstree.
It seemed a good plan until I found myself struggling for pace on the walk up to Hayeswater and promptly decided that there was no way I was going to do the steep walk up the nose of the fell, which looked very steep indeed. Instead the climb up to The Knott took its place. High Street was wreathed in cloud as I climbed up and although there were patches of drizzle it looked like the sun was trying to come out. Hope yet.
Despite my earlier poor pace I made much better time up to The Knott and soon I was striding out purposefully towards High Street. As I reached the cloud base which just touched the top 20m or so of the fell, the drizzle turned into more persistent rain and the wind picked up. I lurched my way up to the summit, barely stopped to acknowledge it and carried on along the wall to find the left turn towards Mardale Ill Bell. The wind and rain pounded me as I made my way down and grew in ferocity as I descended to Nan Bield Pass. It was clear that a pitch a bit lower down was called for tonight – in that wind I’d never get the tent up, let alone keep it up.
Briefly the cloud broke to reveal Small Water below and I had my answer. I reached the pass and took refuge in the shelter while I thought through the options as it was time to commit myself to a direction from which I would not be returning today. There was no way I was continuing onto Harter Fell so a descent towards Small Water seemed to fit the bill. But I’d only go down as far as necessary to find a sheltered, flat and dry pitch.
The wind played at my back as I descended, reminding me who was boss, and I kept my eyes peeled for signs of the magic combination of attributes that would make for a decent pitch. Certainly water availability wasn’t much of a problem – indeed the whole fell side seemed to be a stream. I headed off-path several times to check out possibilities but to no avail – anything that was out of the wind was either sloping or like a paddy field. I got all the way down to the tarn, having spotted a lush green patch beyond some rocks, both of which suggested possibilities. I fought my way around the shore of the tarn, over slippery rocks and trudging through run-off from the fells above, and eventually found myself on a flattish patch between a rock outcrop and the tarn. It seemed reasonably dry – or at least as dry as wet grass can ever feel when it’s been raining all day. It wasn’t perfectly level but there seemed to be little wind. I started pitching and then found the problem – rocks under the ground meant it was difficult to get the pegs to penetrate and so I couldn’t get them in quite as far as I’d like. And having pretty much got the tent up, the wind rose again, confident it had lulled me into a false sense of security from which I probably wouldn’t retreat.
One advantage of a tarn edge pitch is that there are usually plenty of rocks lying around, and four of the biggest and heaviest went on the guys to provide a bit of extra reinforcement. And there was absolutely no hesitation in using the crossing poles today.I got the pitch “good enough” and got myself inside. The wind flowed around the tent as if looking for its hiding victim, and all of a sudden one corner collapsed. Shit. It was the corner with the biggest, heaviest rock too. Gulp. Pass me the last will and testament template please.
Outside, I manouevered the big rock into a better position and all was then fine. I sat inside for a while watching the effect of the wind on the tent, as it pummelled Monica to and fro and tried to bend her into awkward shapes. But she stayed rooted to the ground. I got out of my wet things and risked my “stupidly-light-when-half-a-gale-is-blowing” Caldera Cone, taking a lot of care given that the wind was blowing the tent fabric around. I tried the chilli. What a mistake. It was disgusting and I’m seriously considering dumping the second can. Thankfully, though, custard did the job! By now it was getting dark, and I’d committed to the pitch, so I tried to organise things inside the tent with a view to an emergency situation in the night. In between preparations for being blown to Oz during the night, I wondered what Peter’s wind speed gauge would have shown. Certainly, afe well up on the 20-35 mph readings we got the other night. Clearly tonight was one of those occasions when you really start to get an understanding of the limits of your gear. I just hoped that I would see those limits from the safe side rather than the “my tent disappeared in the night” side.
At sunset a last burst of angry wind tried (and failed) to blow Monica down the valley and then wave after wave of big fat rain strafed the tent, while I cowered inside. 7 hours later the rain eased, the wind had blown itself out, and I could fall gently asleep. Or at least I could have done if I wasn’t lying on a slope that was gradually tipping me towards the tarn.