Black Sail or Bust
It was very nearly bust!
I thought it was worth coming out of hibernation to tell you about our recent expedition to Black Sail youth hostel in the Lake District. The hostel is a former shepherd’s hut and sits at the top of Ennnerdale valley, surrounded by some of the finest fells in the Lakes. It is the sole building for miles around, accessible only on foot or by bike. We were about to test whether that included by tandem …
Pete in particular has wanted to stay in the hostel ever since he first did the Coast to Coast walk, many years ago. The route passes right by the hut. Now, he thought it would make a properly worthwhile destination on the tandem. And at last, we had booked the hostel (essential!) and some time off. We were ready.
Or so we thought.
We unloaded the tandem from the car at the bottom of Ennerdale valley and hooked the panniers loaded with overnight essentials on to the bike. Pete pressed the button to check the electric wheel. Nothing happened. He rode it about a little, hoping it would burst into life. It didn’t. He opened up the battery terminal and checked the wires. He couldn’t see any problem.
What to do? We could only stay in the hut that one night and had nowhere else to stay. We had planned this for so long.
We were glad we had food, water and the emergency bothy bag with us. It gave us extra confidence to give it a go. A night under the stars was definitely a possibility.
The inclines were suddenly very noticeable without the reassuring whirr of the electric wheel. And so were the downhills followed by uphills. I felt very helpless and heavy. I tried to feel as light as a feather and not to breathe – this would obviously work!
Pete pedalled and pedalled. It was such hard going. The stops were particularly welcome – and particularly worthwhile, as the views were beautiful. We followed the river Liza as we climbed. It was fast-flowing, swirling white over the stones. The valley slopes are planted with pines and we spent some time cycling with the tall fresh-scented trees on either side of us.
Then the chain came off. Again and again. Every time it came off I had to get off the bike, then back on again. That is not an easy manoeuvre for me, especially repeated so often. I have to ease my right foot into the stirrup with my hand, then push myself up on to the seat.
As we rose higher, the ground became stonier. You could hear the stones being squeezed by the bike tyres then breaking loose with a ‘ping’. This increased the chances of the chain being dislodged and I found myself holding my breath, hoping it wouldn’t be loosened free.
We emerged from the pine forest and the high fells started to become visible. We were particularly thrilled to see Pillar and Pillar Rock come into view; such jagged, uncompromising peaks. I was amongst the fells again and could feel my excitement grow.
The hostel only became visible shortly before we arrived. Then it disappeared again as the path took a cruel last dip down and up. It was a mass of brick-sized sharp stones with a stream running through. We were both forced to dismount and I staggered along, holding on to the bike as Pete guided us to the end of our journey. We were accompanied by thunder and some rain for the last 10 minutes – the journey really had it all!
I had made it under my own steam, after a fashion! I’m certainly counting it! Looking around the plateau, the hut was a tiny dot compared with the fells rising up in every direction. There was nothing but green slopes and dark screes, footpaths tempting you up on to the tops and the odd sheep, braving the inhospitable upper slopes. Right in front of me were Great Gable, Kirk Fell and Green Gable. It felt slightly unreal.
You couldn’t get there by car. It required effort. And we had certainly put in the effort. As I sat on the bike, with my increasingly aching back and arms, I thought how that was entirely appropriate. Pete had certainly put in a huge effort, and anyone who arrived at the hut would have exerted themselves substantially to get there. It would have been wrong if I wasn’t exhausted.
In fact, the hut was that much more welcome for the exertion required. It was perfect – a port in the gathering storm. It was dry, it had snug beds in two dorms and provided a filling evening meal for the hungry walkers (and cyclists!). Tales of walks were swapped and experiences shared. A brother and sister were catching up through a few days’ walks together. A father was walking with his 16-year old daughter – a complete change of scene after her exams. Two Frenchmen were walking the English fells. And there was us!
The warden was extremely friendly – he was interested in everyone and had interesting information to tell. That included the fact that he fed the mice who lived in the wall at the back of the hut and that he didn’t sleep in the hut himself but in a tent at the top of Haystacks, the fell behind us. At 9 o’clock he said goodnight and headed up to his lofty bed. He next morning he said he’d slept well and had enjoyed hearing the rain on his tent. A true outdoor lover.
The next morning he said goodbye to everyone individually and made sure we were all on the right paths for the next part of our journeys. We were particularly pleased when he suggested to us that we take a different route back, on the far side of the river, which was far less stony. It took us past felled trees covered with bright green spongy moss. The air was damp but fresh after the rain and the hills peeked tantalisingly in and out of the scurrying clouds. I don’t think the chain came off the bike once.
(By the way, the electrical fault turned out to be a loose wire inside the control box.)