Travel review: The splendid isolation of the Lake District
Is this the loneliest house in England? Follow the trail of Paul Kirkwood on a mini-expedition to Skiddaw House, a remote youth hostel in the Lake District.
The little details of our mountain hideaway were so charming. The hand-painted signs on the dormitory doors, the array of old-fashioned whistling teapots on the window ledge and mugs hanging on the wall, the wooden chairs arranged in a horseshoe around the log burner, the drying rack hoisted above, the jangly piano in the common room or the rubber clogs you put on in place of walking boots on arrival.
There are lots of boots, for you can reach Skiddaw House only under your own steam. The nearest road is three and a half miles away. The property is the sole building in the massif behind Skiddaw, the sixth highest peak in the Lake District, and the only feature of any type in the whole bare, forbidding surroundings excluding the plantation within which it hides. The house was built around 1830 for the Earl of Egremont’s gamekeeper and later also used by the shepherd. The last incumbent, Pearson Dalton, lived alone there for five days in every seven from 1957 to 1969.
The house was subsequently let to the Border Bothies Association and became a youth hostel in 1987. A chequered period in the house’s history then followed punctuated by closures and reopenings as well as letting and planning issues. The last decade has been more settled and the hostel now operates independently but under the umbrella of the Youth Hostels Association.
Thankfully despite all the upheavals the accommodation hasn’t lost any of its soul. You would be hard pressed to find a more authentic, traditional hostelling experience in England. I felt like I’d been transported back to my youth in the early 80s. I half-expected to be issued with a chore by the warden in the morning and was grateful for the flushing toilet. There’s no mains water or electricity (limited solar power suffices), telephone or mobile signal and don’t embarrass yourself by asking about wi-fi.
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Skiddaw House’s remoteness is something of an illusion since you can get to within walking distance of it in less than three hours drive from Yorkshire, which makes it such a perfect destination for a simple, cheap, quick weekend away from it all with two outstanding hikes into the bargain. My son Bertie and I parked in Keswick and walked up initially via Latrigg, a modest peak but with fine views over the town and a good taste of what’s to come. Before we set off into the wilds we took advantage of a strategically placed coffee van at the end of Gale Road, the main setting-off point for Skiddaw. Not quite how Ranulph Fiennes departs base camp for Everest, I guess. Our route took us along a path skirting Lonscale Fell and halfway up the side of a V-shaped valley. After five miles and having not yet seen a soul we turned the corner for our first view of Skiddaw House. Walking to your overnight stop gives the frisson of being an explorer. Isolated and despite its austere exterior, the building drew us to it as would an island in the ocean.
Unusually, we were the only males staying that night. A party of eight had cancelled, which meant we had a dormitory to ourselves. Our company were six women. The hostel will host many lively groups but we were a studious bunch happy to have quiet chats in the dining area then retire to the common room to read old walking magazines and bird books in the gathering gloom and a silence broken only by the occasional turning of a page. Bliss. Whacked, we had all gone up to bed by 10pm.
The next morning Bertie and I set off on an epic hike up Skiddaw. The advantage of our route up is that it’s used only by hostellers unlike the busy tourist path from Gale Road. On our ascent, we passed just the one hiker who had turned back because of high winds. Fully committed and expecting the worst, we ploughed onwards and upwards. His warning was warranted. At the summit we could barely stand up. Briefly we edged along sideways facing into the teeth of the gale, crouched low and braced like rugby players preparing to scrum.
To our relief, the wind eased a little as we headed down initially via a 45-degree slate scree slope and then via a long, gradually descending roof-like ridge. To the right, we peered into desolate Southerndale, in front of us were plains leading towards the Solway Firth and, to the left, we gazed down to Bassenthwaite Lake. Close to the water’s edge and all alone, we could just make out a sweet little church, St Bega’s. Getting there added distance to what had already been an arduous walk but made the perfect serene conclusion to our micro-adventure. We dipped our boots in the water in triumph. From one splendid isolation to another.
For bookings and more information about Skiddaw House go to skiddawhouse.co.uk.
Bunk beds in shared dormitories cost from £18 for an adult and £11.50 for a child. Simple suppers, packed lunch kits and breakfasts are available from the hostel shop.
Maps for the walks described are available from bit.ly/skiddaw1 and bit.ly/skiddaw2.