Outdoor Articles and Reviews

The Lake District: Wild Camping and Black Sail

Black Sail is a pretty special youth hostel. It has a reputation as one of the most inaccessible youth hostels in the UK. Based in the heart of the Lake District, it is only accessible by either a six mile trek up the valley from Ennerdale (not the TV show) or by mountain pass. However, just because it’s remote, that doesn’t mean it isn’t popular. The hostel is closed over the colder months (November thru to March) and has just 16 beds (eight male and eight female), which means that the weekends over the popular summer season get booked up fast.

We managed to bag four beds on a Sunday night in May by booking the previous October and then decided to plan a slightly bigger trip around that booking. The Lake District does not legally permit wild camping but it is tolerated as long as some quite reasonable rules are followed. After driving up from Hertfordshire on the Friday we stopped off at The Twa Dogs in Keswick to plan a route and general wild camping spots for the Friday and Saturday nights, taking us to Black Sail on Sunday night and back to the car on Monday.

Totally non-staged route planning photo

As time was not on our side on Friday night (just one beer never means just one beer), we picked out potential camping spots on the OS map. We rocked up to a candidate spot in the black of night, considered it suitable, pitched up and hit the hay. Late night wild campers can’t be choosers. When the sun rose, and the rain settled in, we were greeted with a proper view of our site.

Good morning wood

After packing up, we made a swift visit to Keswick to pick up supplies, grab some brekkie and then we were ready to start our trip proper. Black Sail is conveniently placed within (reasonable) walking distance to England’s tallest mountain, Scafell Pike. With that in mind, our route on Saturday took us into the belly of the Lake District, allowing us to tackle Scafell Pike and finish the walk to Black Sail throughout Sunday. We parked the car in Stonethwaite, the start of our circular route, and set off through Langsrath Valley.

Blea[k] Rock

Picture a round of the popular British TV quiz show, QI (I’m picturing it before Sandi Toksvig, when Stephen Fry was still presenting). A stock photo of the Lake District pops up behind our guests (let’s go for Daniel Radcliffe sitting next to Alan Davies, with David Mitchell and Ulrika Jonsson on the opposite side). Stephen forms a question…

“Now, moving on to our glorious national parks. It is well known that the Lake District is ironically home to taller peaks than any located in the Peak District. The Lake District, of course, contains England’s tallest mountain, Scafell Pike. The choice of name for the Peak District is better understood by the number of peaks located in the Peak District, 108 of which are over the height of 245m. However, do you know how many lakes there are in the Lake District?”

Alan chirps up.

“I went on a family holiday to the Lake District when I was 11. My resounding memories from the trip were rain and me and my sister arguing about who would be the dog in Monopoly for the fifth game in a row.”

Light audience snicker

David interjects.

“We’ve got a very old version of Monopoly in our household. So old in fact that all the original playing pieces have all long gone missing. So when you’re picking your piece, that means you have a choice of: a green army man, a large black button, a tiny comb, a fridge magnet of the letter “C”, a thimble (but not the one from the original version) and a laminated picture of Alan Titchmarsh.”

Audience guffaws

Alan, ever the fool, goes for the contrary answer.

“I bet there’s some stupid meaning for what a “lake” is; I’m going for zero”

SIRENS WAIL The screen flashes “0”, “0”, “0”. Alan rolls his eyes and Stephen smiles from ear to ear.

“Not quite Alan, anyone else?”

Daniel gives it a shot:

“I haven’t been to the Lake District but my family does have a version of Monopoly with my face on the board. That’s just one item from the many in my Mum’s weirdly obsessive Harry Potter memorabilia collection.”

Conscientious audience laughter

“Complete stab in the dark for this one, I’m going for 52”.

Stephen smiles once more.

“Looks like your natural wizarding talent didn’t help you out. Any more for any more?”. Ulrika stares blankly and Stephen continues. “Well, Alan nearly had this one”, the screen behind changes to a picture of Bassenthwaite Lake, “There is only one lake in our district of lakes. Whilst there are many bodies of water within the Lake District, it is only Bassenthwaite Lake, close to Keswick which has “lake” in its title. However, there are 16 other bodies of water which are considered to be the main “lakes”.

All guests roll their eyes.

Clouds part for a short rest at Angle Tarn (not a lake)

After a morning of rain, the clouds part as we made our way up to Bow Fell. Still, it was a short reprise; as we reached the last stretch to the peak we were greeted by a mighty wind which cut through to your core. I think the name of its sister mountain, Crinkle Crags, pretty aptly describes the type of rocks right at the top of Bow Fell. The well trodden path towards the peak of Bow Fell disappears 20 metres before the summit and becomes a crinkly craggy scramble (or difficult to traverse interbeds of andesite outcropping from the ground).

View from atop Bow Fell

From Bow Fell we descended into the South-Western valley, the area which we’d decided to hunt for a suitable camping spot. At the base of the valley runs Lingcove Beck, a beautiful river which hides new pools and waterfalls around every twist and turn. We located a fine flat piece of grass right next to the picturesque glen at Throstle Garth. A mere two minutes after we’d dropped our bags on the ground we stripped down to our pants, scrambled down the rocks and had a (very) brief dip in our private pool. If you’re into canyoning, wild swimming or just getting cold and wet; I would heartily recommend this stretch of water to explore.

Overlooking our camping spot

On this trip I brought with me a long held but never used camping accessory, the Sawyer Mini water filtration system. After using it to continually replenish all four of our water supplies throughout the trip, I cannot understate what a fantastic piece of kit this is. This 60g filter uses a fibre membrane to filter out 99.99999% of bacteria. Without getting too technical, the force of the flow sends water through hundreds of U shaped micro tubes; these micro tubes have tiny 0.1 micron pores which capture and stop any bacteria, allowing only clean water to pass. We sat by the stream in the morning and filled up 10 litres of water in about 10 minutes. It most certainly beats relying on water purification tablets; the water comes out crystal clear and has a crisp, clean taste to it (which, in hindsight, is probably more a property of the water from the Lake District springs).

Replenishing water supplies with the Sawyer filtration system

On Sunday morning we began our ascent towards Scafell Pike. After getting stuck knee deep in mud during my previous solo trip to Dartmoor, I was wary of the telltale signs of a bog when crossing Great Moss to the base of Scafell Pike. With patient caution we navigated our way through and surveyed our route up.

Contemplating the ascent of Scafell Pike

Neighbouring Scafell Pike is another peak, Scafell. Which, from many angles, including the southerly route we approached from, appears taller than Scafell Pike. Whilst Scafell Pike is regularly traversed by coach-led tourists, Scafell is a popular draw for climbers. UKC (or calls Scafell “England’s finest cliff” with a “sublime climbing experience that is second to none”.


Once we reached the top of Scafell Pike we stopped for lunch, making sure to take all our rubbish with us. Why do I mention this? Well, much like our favourite celebrities, there is often a cruel price that must be paid for fame. Wasdale Mountain Rescue Team has a long history of posting scathing statuses on their Facebook relating to the state of England’s tallest peak: “Shocking amounts of litter, people creating new paths, the stink of urine and worse on the summit of Scafell Pike this morning”. They also posed the question of whether a climb to the peak was the highlight of the day, or a trip to the tip. I can’t really attest to seeing a huge amount of rubbish, well, except for a Liverpool FC flag which someone had attached to the summit marker…

Slight premature celebration on Scafell Pike

Heading back down the north side of the hill we were met with breathtaking views of Great Gable (claim to fame at 9th tallest mountain in England) and the surrounding scenery. This valley leads all the way to Wasdale Head, the most common place to embark on the climb to Scafell Pike; therefore, there is a pub. The Wasdale Head Inn has great home-fry style chips but to its discredit, it does not serve Scafell Pint.

View down to Great Gable just off Scafell Pike

From Wasdale Head we embarked on the final stretch of the day, Black Sail Pass. Tired, and legs heavy we were delighted to see Black Sail Youth Hostel nestled in the side of the hill as we descended into the valley of River Liza. We were met by the welcoming James who checked us in, cooked us dinner and sold us wine. Key tip if you’re staying at Black Sail, bring cash! The central area in Black Sail has tables and benches which surround a roaring wood-burning stove. Placards on the walls also answer the age old riddle: what came first? Black Sail or Black Sail Pass? You’ll have to go yourself to find out the answer out to that one.

Last stretch to Black Sail

On Monday morning we were cooked breakfast and given packed lunches (I promise this wasn’t a school trip). We donned full waterproof gear, having been extremely lucky with the weather up to that point, and headed towards Honister Pass. The final stretch back to the car took us along the road through Seatoller where we paused, you know, just because we like standing around in the rain.

W e t b o y e s

Completing our circular route at Stonethwaite we found a conveniently placed bus stop to change out of our wet things; all of us experiencing the familiar feeling of satisfied tiredness that comes from getting lost in nature for a few days.