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Published: January 16th 2011
With Kilimanjaro creeping ever closer we decided to visit the Lake District again for some last minute training to ensure we were in perfect shape for our attempt on Africa's highest peak. To make it a little more interesting we decided to try wild camping. Neither of us had wild camped before, but Trail magazine, to which we subscribe, had run a feature on it the previous month and it had immediately sparked our interest.
Is wild camping legal? Officially, it's not allowed in England unless you have the landowners permission. However, provided you follow a number of rules it's apparently tolerated by the National Park authorities! Trail recommended camping at above 450 metres altitude, and as far away as possible from the nearest farm or settlement. We also had to delay putting up our tent until the last possible moment and had to ensure we left early the following morning. Oh, and most important we had to leave no trace of our presence...
So we packed the stove, tent, sleeping bags, hiking gear and what felt like enough food for a week into our bags, and off we set on our two day adventure. We left London early
Discreetly camping above Seathwaite Tarn
on a Saturday morning for the 3 hour trip to Windermere, and spent most of the journey deciding where to go. Over the last few years we've explored most corners of the Lake District but we were keen to try somewhere new, so after much deliberation we choose the Coniston Fells.
These fells lie in the south of the Lake District National Park, to the west of Coniston Water and the small village of Coniston. The best known and highest fell in this set is The Old Man of Coniston (2634 feet or 803 metres), though there are at least 5 or 6 other fells of similar height in the vicinity. A few years ago, I had tried to explore and climb all of the Coniston fells in one go, but had reached only one summit (Swirl How) before running into the worst weather imaginable. So it would be fairly new to me and completely new to Ruth.
From Windermere we caught the Coniston Rambler bus to Coniston. This cost 6.75 each, which worked out at about one pound a mile. The Lake District authorities are always trying to get people to leave the car behind - perhaps
On the summit of Grey Friar, there is a rock which bears a resemblance to the famous Matterhorn mountain.
if they made the buses cheaper it might happen!
It was 2pm by the time we set off and with a large rucksack each (about 16kg) this would be a difficult hike. I hadn't carried this much stuff on a hike since the Santa Cruz trail in Peru, so I expected it to be tough but at the same time it would be great preparation for Tanzania the following weekend.
We decided to climb the Old Man of Coniston first as the path to the top is very obvious. As well as being clear, it's a very scenic hike, full of interesting details. This was once a very important mining area and much evidence and remains of this industry was still in place. The higher we climbed the better the views became of Coniston Water. We even had time for a quick diversion to try a bit of climbing on the Pudding Stone which was just off the path after about an hour into the hike.
It was a steep hike to Low Water and an even steeper hike from there to the summit of the Old Man but we made it and had a well deserved
Wild Camp spot by Seathwaite Tarn
We finally found a place to camp by Seathwaite Tarn. Our spot was above the rocks, in the top left of the picture.
rest on the top. As ever in Lakelands, what had been clear skies on the way up had become cloud covered once we reached the top so we did not get to experience the famous 360 degree views. On a clear day it's said you can see all the way to Blackpool in the south.
It was also bitterly cold by now and we didn't really know where we would be camping so we didn't linger long on top. We quickly walked to Brim Fell, the nearest to the Old Man. Were I not attempting all the Wainwrights I would probably have skipped this peak as we were still in heavy cloud! I think this was number 70 something in my Wainwright list so I'm now about 1/3 of the way there. We hiked down to the pass between Dow Crag and Old Man and began to scour for suitable camp sites but found nothing. I had a feeling Seathwaite Tarn might be a good spot, so after a quick visit to the summit of Dow Crag we walked down a questionable path to reach the edge of the tarn.
What looked like a flat, green area from
above turned out to be a moss, completely unsuitable for camping. We walked along the east side of the tarn but the ground here was steep and not suitable for a tent. We were beginning to get a little worried as it was now almost 8pm and the bags were feeling very heavy. Finally we found a spot higher up behind a large rock, about halfway along the southern side of the tarn. This was certainly a wild spot: we hadn't seen anyone for hours and there was only a faint path here which looked like it hadn't had footsteps in a longtime. We later found out the west side of the tarn is the more popular side.
By now it was getting dark so we quickly put up the tent and began cooking dinner. There was a stream about 100 metres along the path but so close to Kilimanjaro we were a bit wary about drinking this water so had carried 3 litres each which we used for the cooking. We had a delicious if strange meal made up of a combination of baguette, cheese, sausages, tinned tomatoes and onions rounded off by a nice cup of tea.
A bottle of wine would have been perfect but we were off alcohol for another 3 weeks until Kili was over.
A couple of inquisitive sheep passed by but other than that we were all alone in a remote and windy spot - perfect. I could see a light on the other side of the lake which probably belonged to other wild campers but that was a long way away. When darkness fell, the sounds of the night seemed to magnify and it felt a little strange to be out there in the middle of nowhere all on our own. But we soon got used to it!
In the end we managed to sleep very well and woke to clear skies and a nice sunrise. We had a delicious breakfast of rice pudding and pineapple juice followed by more tea before quickly packing up our gear. Other than the flattened grass no-one would know we had been here...
The weather looked much better today so we were determined to reach a summit for the views before the clouds came in. We first climbed Grey Friar, which is on the west side of Seathwaite Tarn. This is an
Village of Coniston, starting point for our hike.
interesting summit with two peaks, a well known mini Matterhorn rock and great views in all directions, especially towards the Scafell group, which of course contain England's two highest peaks.
From Grey Friar it was a short ridge walk to Great Carrs, which was the site of an plane crash in WW2. Parts of the plane are still visible at a memorial site below the summit.
Clearly carrying these bags was hard work as we had nearly finished all our food by now. We had the remaining cheese and crackers at the summit of Great Carrs, overlooking the Greenburn Valley and Coniston in the distance. This was a lovely spot and I could have stayed there all day.
It was another short ridge walk to Swirl How, which I enjoyed much more than my previous visit here in atrocious weather. The descent from Swirl How goes via the Prison Band, which was very tough with a heavy backpack. Including Wetherlam would have completed the set of 7 fells but we were running out of time so we walked back down to Coniston via Levers Water instead.
I loved the Wild Camping experience and will definitely do
Climbing Grey Friar
Steep climb from the tarn on the south side of Grey Friar.
this again. There is nothing quite like waking up right in the heart of the mountains to a Lakeland sunrise!
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