Lake District

Sunday Express, March 4, 2012

Map out a great Lakes getaway

DUNCAN CRAIG takes the rough with the smooth on a break in Wainwright country

IT WAS not my proudest moment. Reaching the 1,500ft pass I was met by a wall of sleet and an indiscernible trail. With fading light and mounting apprehension I was relieved to spot a lone figure striding purposefully through the gloom.

“Is this the way to Black Sail YHA?” I shouted at the stout fellow. “Not sure,” he shouted back. “Let’s have a look on your map.” A long pause. “You do have one, right?” My face took on an apologetic grimace. “Not exactly. But I do have this”, and with that I unfolded a sodden picture of the legendarily remote hostel printed off the internet.

Black Sail is arguably the YHA’s most iconic property. Sitting at the prow of its own valley, this former shepherd’s bothy has been sheltering and nourishing hikers since the Thirties. They come for the scenery, for the peace but mostly, one suspects, for the sense of isolation. Nothing man-made sullies the view, only timeless tawny-and-russet slopes dissected by glinting streams.

Access is from several directions, but exclusively by foot. My wife and I opted for parking at Gatesgarth, in the adjoining valley on Buttermere’s shore. As we pulled on woolly hats still sporting their price tags, white horses ripped across its surface. Setting off up the mountain for Scarth Gap Pass, the wind, and an imagined Michael Burke commentary from BBC disaster series 999, rang in my ears.

Remarkably, less than two hours later we were warming our feet by Black Sail’s wood-burner and chatting to live-in warden Martin. “Any problems finding us?” “No,” we lied, grateful for the educated steer from our manifestly unimpressed hiking friend.

With a little forewarning you can ensure a hot meal is waiting. A no-brainer, that. We gorged on cottage pie and chocolate pudding while the wind whistled up the valley

Black Sail sleeps 16 in three dorms. On this midweek evening, there were just three other guests, all return visitors.

The hostel has a shop and self-catering kitchen but, with a little forewarning, you can ensure a hot meal is waiting. A no-brainer. We gorged on cottage pie and chocolate fudge pudding rustled up by Martin’s partner Suzy.

This passionately outdoorsy couple met through the YHA, an all too familiar scenario apparently. “Your Husband Assured,” joked Suzy, tracing the YHA letters across her shirt.

The wind whistled up the valley, rattling the windows. Inside the thick stone walls, all was snug.

Dawn brought a change of weather and with it the opportunity to enjoy one of the Lakes’ premier hikes over adjacent Haystacks. Father of the fells Alfred Wainwright was so enchanted by this peak he had his ashes scattered here. “If you taste something strange in the water,” Martin had joked the previous evening, “that’s probably what it is.”

From the summit tarn we took in a panorama of peaks and watery canyons stretching to the Cumbrian coast. Looping around the ridge, we dropped into Gatesgarth just as the rain resumed.

A little pampering was next on the menu. We found the ideal place 10 miles north, on the shores of Bassenthwaite: Armathwaite Hall. This country house hotel’s castle-like appearance belies the warmest of welcomes. Were it to be attacked by invading forces, it would probably just invite them all in to use its spa facilities.

We almost pulled a muscle in our eagerness to test out this multi-million-pound, multi-level annexe.

I had a Comfort Touch full-body massage and came to 20 minutes later curled up on a day bed in the Hush room. We followed this with some Olympic-standard lounging in the outdoor hot tub which pumped steam into the chill evening air like a bad Eighties disco.

The outdoor hot tub pumped steam into the chill evening air like a bad Eighties disco

Immersed almost to our noses we watched rabbits scuttle around the woodland and placed bets on which guests owned the two helicopters on the baize-like lawn.

No sign of Cheryl Cole in the ornate Lake View Restaurant, sadly. Nor (my wife’s guess) Sting. No matter, as we feasted on crispy belly pork with scallops and a delectable chargrilled sirloin.

The eponymous view caused us some consternation, though. Had we not arrived along a road with the lake to our right and hotel to our left? Yet, as we looked out, the grounds seemed to flow to the water’s edge.

Our waiter had the answer: a trompe l’oeil achieved by sinking the stretch of road in front of the hotel by 10ft. If only they could do the same with Workington, I hear the locals say.

Far prettier is Cockermouth, a few miles west. The market town had its own sinking problems in 2009. The dramatic flooding has now spawned a “highlights” trail showing some daunting tide marks.

“Would you like the map as well?” asked the lady at the tourist information centre as we set off to walk it.

“Yes,” my wife said with a stern look in my direction. “He would.”

* INFORMATION: YHA Black Sail (0845 371 9680/www.yha.org.uk) offers dormitory stays from £19 per adult, £18 per child. Discounts for YHA and Hostelling International members.