Great Nights in the Hills – Part 1, YHA Black Sail

It was our second day on the Wainwright’s Coast to Coast walk and we were sampling some of England’s dreariest weather (simply known as “weather” in the Lake District). We’d spent the previous night sliding downhill in a pokey two-man tent perched on the flattest ground we could find, and by the time we reached the western apex of Ennerdale Water we failed to see the fun in anything, even the amusing shape of the lake on the map (rotate 45 degrees anticlockwise for maximum effect). The traverse of the southern edge of the lake looks pleasant enough on the map and shouldn’t have troubled us. However, the extensive runoff coming from the hills that flank the lake meant crossing a raging torrent every few hundred feet. By what felt like the millionth time we’d crossed one of these cascades, our Gore-Tex boots ceased to be of any use.

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YHA Black Sail sits in the shadow of the Lakes’ most recognisable lump, the Great Gable, and is only accessible by foot. Once finished desperately trying not to lose a boot in the vast bog at the tip of Ennerdale Water, it is a long and rather monotonous tramp along a wooded track before reaching the understated stone building that fits so beautifully into its surroundings.

I usually feel guilty falling through the door of a nice country pub or hotel in my bedraggled state after a day in the hills, ruining the ambience with water, mud and body odour. Happily, everyone here seemed to be in the same boat (with particular emphasis on the boat metaphor given the conditions outside). The sense of relief to be sheltered was palpable. The main room was full of walkers, all basking in the heat from the fireplace and hanging drenched clothing on anything that would take it. I pulled off my boots, wincing at the sucking sound that ensued, then revelled in the simple but greatest pleasure that perhaps only British walkers understand: I put on a clean, dry pair of socks.

Eventually the ranger showed up fully clad in murky green and khaki like all people that work in outdoor conservation seem to. I speculate that this is so they can blend into the undergrowth, ready to catch unsuspecting walkers who may be about to piss on a protected plant or steal a sheep for a baselayer. Later, with the costume-change efficiency of Lady Gaga, he sported a rather fetching set of chef’s whites and a tall hat to prepare dinner, fully embracing his various roles in the hostel.

Often billed as “the loneliest hostel in the UK”, the atmosphere was anything but. We all ate together, having a hearty dinner of something carby, red and filling and then all mucked in with the washing up. One feels like they have stepped back in time, perhaps into a 19th century traveller’s stop from a Thomas Hardy novel, with no electric sockets or phone reception and wooden cladding to boot. Leo and I passed the evening playing cards with an eighty-year-old man and his son, whom we later discovered were from a mile down the road from where we live. We sat by a window hoping that the scenery would reveal itself through the clag but were sorely disappointed.

The delightful dormitories were a far cry from city hostels I’ve experienced, with their ominous smelling sheets, drunken couples engaging in not-so-secret hanky-panky and the concerningly fat occupant of the bunk above. I opted for the top bunk (a lesson learnt from my imaginary prison days) and was positioned underneath a small skylight. The rhythmic beating of the rain on the glass massaged my brain into a deep sleep. I was tucked under the well worn but distinctly comfortable sheets, and listened to the tempest outside knowing that I was the cosiest man in the north of England.

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