Microadventure No.3 A trip to Mosedale Bothy

I am finding this microadventure thing tricky to write up. We have so much fun here with our courses and trips that it can be difficult to separate the ‘work’ from the ‘adventure’. The end of October normally marks the point where we have a little bit more free time, so my mind starts to wander into that mental cupboard marked ‘things I will do when I have time’. This cupboard is large, full to the brim and growing every month…

Lake District BothyI love bothies. They are the UK equivalent of wilderness huts, but with a distinctly British air. They are remote structures, unoccupied but maintained (mostly) by volunteers from the Mountain Bothy Association. Often partially-rebuilt shepherds huts or crofters cottages, they are sparsely furnished with a few chairs and a table or two, plus a stove of some type. Unlike their Scandinavian or North American counterparts however it is NOT customary to leave dry fuel and a fire ready to light – bothy users have to bring their own fuel and matches etc, as well as food and pretty much everything else. Damp and cold, they sound rather unattractive… but on a cold wet night with a fire lit in the stove, some good company and safe in the knowledge that you are possibly the only humans for miles in any direction they are little stone sanctuaries, luxurious tent alternatives that have been part of British mountaineering and wilderness experiences for most of the last 100 yrs.

Mosedale Cottage is one of only three bothies in the Lake District, and probably the most remote of the three. It sits in a rounded valley on the edge of the Shap Fells, out of sight of any roads, towns or houses and is only accessible on foot (or by quad for a select few with permission) or by mountain bike. I admit that it hadn’t been on my ‘list’ but I was vaguely aware of its existence. What had been on my ‘list’ though was to explore the wild and remote fells north of Borrowdale, making use of my friend’s home in the farmhouse there as a parking place and somewhere to walk from. We could walk out of Ivan’s front door, down the farmyard, cross the beck and we would be on a remote shepherd’s track heading to the first summit, Robin Hood (493m), with permission of course. From this fell onwards you are on access land – if you wish to find your own way to this bothy you will need to look for ways to get onto the CROW Act-designated access land via footpaths or bridleways.

Borrowdale Lake DistrictAs we had left the farmyard we had briefly chatted with Richard, the resident shepherd for the estate. We had met a few times before over the years, and he cheerily informed us that we were about to be joined in the hills by the local hunt, their hounds already roaming the fells to the south. As we crossed the bog below the rounded summit we caught our first glimpse of them, white streaks swarming across the opposite side of the valley. After a brief stop for photos and to study the band of cloud and rain rapidly approaching from the east we continued onto the next low, rounded summit of Lord’s Seat (524m) – and saw the same pack now on the far side of the parallel valley to our north. Their speed and strength was amazing – I was suddenly rather glad that we were not the quarry that day!
From here the weather did what it always does in Cumbria eventually – the cloud level dropped, the rain began and the dampness of the air was matched by the saturated ground underfoot. I was starting to understand why these were the less popular fells!

Grey Crag summitThe next summit was slightly more substantial, a slowly rising ridge of rock and bog topped by twin tops, one only a meter higher than its neighbour. The one that has been named Grey Crag (638m) is one of the peaks listed by Alfred Wainwright, and is the easternmost of his list of the Lakeland summits. A short descent to yet another bog led to a fenceline that could be handrailed up through the thickening mist to the next peak, Tarn Crag (664m). After a brief hunt for the trig point that marks the official summit we noticed a huge stone pillar looming out of the mist, at the top of the steep drop to Buckbarrow Crag and Sleddale below. It was around 10ft high with a large slot in the top – like a giant stone tuning fork. Its origins remained a mystery to all three of us (two humans and a damp spaniel), but we were glad of the shelter in provided whilst we dug into rucksacks to find flapjack and flasks. A few days later I took a sneaky look at a Wainwright guide in one of the many, many outdoor emporiums in Ambleside and discovered that the pillar had been built as part of the surveying infrastructure for an aqueduct construction, and within recent living memory it had a sported a wooden platform partway up.

Shap HillwalkingOut of the mist, just on the edge of visibility about 75m away a white shape strolled into view, revealing itself to be one of the hounds we had spotted a few hours before. I’m not sure it even saw us, and it quickly disappeared again. We later discovered that a hound had indeed gone missing from the pack, spending the night somewhere out on the fells before returning hungry but unharmed to the farmyard the next morning.

Fully expecting the rest of the pack to appear at any moment we hurried down the far side of the hill to the saddle between our hill and Artlecrag Pike, joining the bridleway that links Swindale and Sleddale and runs right past the bothy in Mosedale, which although only about 2000m away was still out of sight. It felt a little odd to be on a ‘proper’ path after the trackless moor we had just crossed, but our feet were glad of the easier terrain and we hurried down to the foot of the next ridge as the light began to fade.

Lake District Bothy TripArriving at a bothy is always a slightly tentative experience. Unless there is a column of smoke rising from the chimney it can be tricky to see if there is anybody in temporary residence. As bothies are free to stay in and there is no such thing as a reservation system you could either find an empty room, a lone traveller or a bothy full of alcohol-lubricated revellers on the other side of the door. On one memorable occasion I entered a Welsh bothy to find about 20 drunk folk inside, who seemed to be under the impression that as they had arrived first they had ‘claimed’ the bothy and seemed unwilling to share it with a couple of damp climbers…

This time though we found an empty building. The door bearing the badge of the Mountain Bothies Association marked the area that was truly a bothy, there was a locked room or rooms to one side for those with a key. The ‘open’ rooms were spacious and clean (ish), with leather chairs down either side of the main room, a surprising upgrade from the old school chairs etc we are used to finding. The usual stove, table and bothy book were all there – the latter being a logbook for those who visit to record the stay and report any unusual findings. As testament to the rugged nature of the place, the words “DO NOT BURN!!!” are emblazoned in biro across the front. A visitor had added “Nae bother pal” underneath…

Lake District Bothy TripThe main room had two smaller rooms resembling monks cells leading off, and a step up led to two larger rooms, one with a wooden sleeping platform that was reminiscent of some alpine refuges I have visited. Anything used to construct features or repair the building here has to be carried up from the valley by volunteers, and I am always grateful for their efforts when staying in one of these places.

The next order of business was to light the gas stove (an exciting prospect as the Primus Omnifuel I had chosen to bring with me decided today was the day to have a leak partway down the fuel hose – duct tape saving the day) and boil some water gathered from the stream that runs perilously close to the bothy. A hot chocolate later we were changing out of wet clothes (or, in my case, out of wet jacket and baselayer but not trousers as I am occasionally an idiot and forget to pack my usual thin leggings) and contemplating the net task – lighting the woodstove. Using our small supply of dry wood we had lugged in (well, that Rhian had…) I started a small but smokey fire that raised the temperature in the room a couple of degrees, but enough to make the building a bit more habitable. With clothing, rucksacks and gear hanging from hooks on the ceiling and candles lighting the dark corners it was a slightly unconventional place to settle in to for the night, but it was still better than a tent and much better than a bivvy bag in the rain!

Outside the wind picked up and the clouds disappeared revealing stars and the ampitheatre of fells that enveloped our stone sanctuary. We read, talked, dozed and read a little more. The stove was coaxed along, supplementing our own wood with two fragments of fence posts that we had found on the walk in that afternoon. The hiss of damp wood and the howling wind provided a backgound soundtrack as we pulled sleeping bags out of stuffsacks and laid out sleeping mats – all under the blue glow of an LED headlight.

The next morning slowly emerged from the opposite hills, the dirty windows filtering the watery dawn light.

Why is that sleeping bags are always at their most warm and comfortable moments before you have to get up?

Lake district BothyThe next hour or so was filled with packing slightly-less-wet kit back into rucksacks, making breakfast and boiling clean drinking water for the next leg of the journey. We had originally planned to retrace our steps back over the Wainwrights we crossed yesterday, but a quick ponder over the map showed a cross-country route that had slightly tougher terrain but promised to get us back to the farm early.

We continued down the bridleway we had finished on yesterday, looking out for the bend in the river on our right that marked the point we left the path and crossed a substantial planked bridge then climbed up onto the plateau that led us out of this valley. When I say plateau – quagmire might be more accurate. A low point on the short ridge ahead of us gave us somewhere to aim for whilst we meandered around the worst of the bog and negotiated the high-sided peat hags. Towards the end we spotted two red deer hinds up on the ridge, not far from where we had spotted the pack yesterday – the only deer we saw throughout the trip, the other evidence being droppings and tracks in the soft soil. The overall wildlife count hadn’t been too bad for this trip though – sightings of snipe, ravens and about 4,000,000 rodents (a conservative estimate, most of them being flushed out of their grass runs and tracks by our Springer Spaniel companion).

Cumbria BothyFrom the top of the first ridge we looked down to the opposite slopes under Lord’s Seat, trying to pick out the smoothest route from our lofty vantage point. A few sheep/deer tracks looked like they could be linked together to take us to the saddle between Lord’s Seat and Robin Hood, so we plodded down the steep slope and up the other side, carefully stepping around the remains of a sheep that looked like it had exploded.

The final stage of our journey was retracing the ground trodden yesterday morning, looking out for the sight of the farm in Borrowdale. The first human we saw was Richard-the-Shepherd, glad to see we were still alive and hadn’t succumbed to the terrors of the Shap Wilderness. The last mile was along the farm track, pausing to wash muddy boots in Borrow Beck before changing back into ‘normal’ clothes and setting off for Ambleside, a late lunch and a spot of gear-fondling in the shops.

I find the return to ‘civilisation’ after even a short trip into the hills or woods slightly odd. Mobiles are switched on, emails ping into being and demands on our time are made once again. We discovered that the ESA lander Philae had touched down on the Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko on this particular trip, and I know of one fellow who idly picked up a newspaper on the small ferryboat coming back from a trip to the Hebrides to see what had happened in the world whilst he had been away. It was then 13th September 2001, two days after the WTC attacks in New York and the general impression he got was that the world had come to an end.

Bothies are great. They are damp, dirty and subject to damage from thoughtless individuals and the ravages of British weather, but they are our own wilderness huts and we should do everything we can to keep up the tradition. At the very least try to keep them tidy, report any damage you find to the MBA and if you can spare candles, matches, tinned food or similarly useful items then please leave them on the designated shelf – the next cold, damp and hungry traveller may appreciate it.

Basic Navigation Course Report, November 2014
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