Days Like This, No 21: Eternity in Borrowdale

Borrowdale 1THE closest thing to eternity is a cold night in a tent. Hope dies while hours limp slowly past. Supernovae fade and constellations shift as time distorts and clocks refuse to tick. Body heat is sucked into the ungrateful ground. Breath condenses and freezes on the inner tent. Dreams are short-lived and repetitive. Comfort is a dark stranger. Night is all . . .

This is a retro post for Because They’re There. It’s a letter from the past featuring a memorable walk and the contemporary events surrounding it . . .

It could be argued that all this discomfort can be avoided with judicial investment in decent mountain gear. A proper winter sleeping bag, for instance, thermal clothes and an effective mattress would be a start. But could George Orwell have written Down and Out in Paris and London without actually being down and out in Paris and London? No, he couldn’t.

Besides, this is 1979 and us outdoor types are used to roughing it. We were brought up in the days before central heating and uPVC windows. We know about frozen pipes, paraffin heaters, chilblain ointment and chapped legs. We’ve thawed our milk on the school pipes and watched our parents set mouse-traps in icy kitchens. We are the last generation to be taught how to create a draught with a coal shovel and newspaper in those crucial moments when the first wisps of smoke snake up a chimney. Our first sleeping bags were made from old eiderdowns, for Christ’s sake, not something posh and fluorescent. We’re tough, us lot. We were born cold.

And tonight, my God, it’s cold. This is Borrowdale in January. Borrowdale beneath a sky where the Milky Way stretches like a silky river from one black ridge to another. Borrowdale dark, still and unforgettably silent.

When dawn arrives it brings no succour. Hands, arms and faces require exposing to sub-zero temperatures. Butane stoves refuse to burn effectively in this intense cold. Water takes an age to boil. Tea becomes an ambition rather than an essential part of breakfast. And when the sun finally rises, tents remain rigid and frozen.

But that’s enough of the downside. We all know about the pros and cons of camping. Well, most of us do. The upside is that dawns like these bring crisp, clear skies and splendid colours.

Borrowdale 3I leave the campsite at Rosthwaite and trudge south to the foot of Honister Pass. Great sheets of ice cover the road. Climbing the pass, I am forced to keep to the verges to avoid the ice. Just above the steepest section is a sign that says, somewhat unhelpfully: “You have been warned.” Pity the poor motorists creeping slowly down the gradient.

Borrowdale 4I climb Dale Head, taking a haphazard path up the old incline through the Yew Crag quarries and slate mines. This is one of my favourite routes in the Lakes. Done it many times over the years. I get a great deal of satisfaction rooting among the rusty machinery the slate fellas left when the quarries were abandoned back in the 1960s.

Borrowdale 6Borrowdale 5From the summit of Dale Head (753m, 2,470ft), I cross Eel Crags to High Spy (653m, 2,142ft) and Maiden Moor (576m, 1,889ft) then descend to the valley. By now it’s mid afternoon and the fields are in shadow. There are certain stretches of Borrowdale where the sun has not penetrated and last night’s frost is still white on the ground.

Borrowdale 7Borrowdale 8Back at the campsite my tent remains frozen. I remove the pegs but it doesn’t budge, so I drag it over, fold it twice and stuff it in the back of the Mini. Then I hit the road for Keswick and the long drive back through the Lakes to Furness.

Borrowdale 2Raw heat floods the car from the engine and for the first time all weekend I am actually warm. The air filter is on its winter setting, there’s a lump of hardboard shoved down the front of the radiator, and I’ve spread tinfoil across the radiator grille. These are the things we do, we happy and competent motorists. Oh, the sheer comfort.

Top twenty on the radio. Ian Drury and the Blockheads at Number One. Good music, heat, satisfaction and tired muscles. This is what walking is all about. This is what a weekend in the Lakes is all about. These are the treasured moments. Hit me, hit me, hit me.

Ice cold in a frozen Borrowdale, January 1979

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About McFadzean

Alen McFadzean, journalist, formerly of the Northern Echo, in Darlington, and the North-West Evening Mail, Barrow. Former shipyard electrician. Former quarryman and tunneller. Climbs mountains and runs long distances to make life harder. Gravitates to the left in politics just to make life harder still. Now lives in Orgiva, Spain.
This entry was posted in Camping, Climbing, Footpaths, Hiking, History, Industrial archaeology, Mountains, Quarrying, Ruins, Slate quarries, Walking, Weather and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

43 Responses to Days Like This, No 21: Eternity in Borrowdale

  1. Alastair Lings says:

    Many thanks for writing another lovely account, to remind us of the past. Some friends of mine once lowered their VW Beetle down the Buttermere side of Honister Pass using old climbing ropes.

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  2. This is a great post, and I remember camping out near there in bleak midwinter with poorly chosen gear and a frigid woman who wouldn’t keep me warm 🙂 Actually I was born in Canada and lived in Northern Ontario for 12 years…now that is cold -50 below night after night and not much warmer on some days…yes, give me the central heating any day, I deserve it now 🙂

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  3. Ash says:

    Yes Alen, those were the days all right! I’m sure I could think of a few similar tales about growing up in the 50’s & 60’s, however what your tale brought to mind was the day one of my friends set fire to his tent! I was shivering in my own little haven when all hell let loose next door! This was in the Mourne’s & we were about 10 miles from the nearest road………………..! Sorry, I’m meant to be commenting on your blog…….this is what happens when you cross into your senior years!

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    • McEff says:

      Ash, please feel free to tell your own tales here. It all adds to the tapestry. A fire in a tent in the middle of nowhere it a pretty good yarn by anyone’s standards. Those were the days my friend . . .
      Cheers, Alen

      Like

      • Dave B says:

        On saturday’s, after the match, we’d buy a local sports paper called ‘The Sports Argus’; for some reason it was printed on pink paper, which is of no real relevance beyond creating the image of a pink newspaper for context. To put this in perspective, I’m going back to an era when The Albion rarely lost at home and would be top four or five – in what was then the first division – throughout the season; so a long time ago!

        Anyway, the Argus also served as the paper of choice for getting the fire to draw; the trick was to pull it clear just as it began to turn brown, but before a complete conflagration ensued. It was a hit or miss process, which often ended in a room full of burnt paper and some plaintive voice saying “I hadn’t read that – how did the reserves get on?”.

        People showing an interest in reserve team football: we’re virtually into carbon dating here. Great post, as always, Alen.

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        • McEff says:

          Dave, thanks for giving me a good laugh. You’ve captured the image of that crucial fire-lighting moment perfectly. I can see that newspaper turning brown so clearly it could almost be in front of my computer at this very moment. And when it burst into flame – it BURST. It didn’t start with a flicker like the map in the opening credits of Bonanza – it went for it big style.
          It’s a lost skill, like dry-stone walling and coppicing. People should be taught how to light fires with a sheet of newspaper.
          Cheers, Alen

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          • rthepotter says:

            Still have to do the newspaper thing with mine as it’s a lousy chimney, much more difficult now broadsheet newspapers are so scarce. Glad to hear that it’s a craft skill, though 🙂

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            • McEff says:

              I’m glad to hear it’s still being practised, Mrs P. We still burn coal but we have one of those new-fangled cast-iron stove things with a damper.
              Cheers, Alen

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      • Ash says:

        Sorry everyone, it wasn’t in the 60’s it was in 1980. Next door…decided to light his camping gas stove at the front of his tent, under the flysheet! He was on his own inside the tent when his only exit was through the ring of fire engulfing his only exit. Had it not been for his blood-curdling calls from the back of his tent we would have been none the wiser. There was only one option for him: to run straight out towards us where he ricocheted straight into the stream alongside the campsite (thank heavens for that stream!) It was then a matter of stripping him off & smothering him in as much midge-bite cream, sunscreen, or whatever we could find. What happened next? The most senior member of our group then walked our friend off the mountain back to the car & straight to hospital. He had severe burns to his hands, arms & his face. He was very very lucky. It was a life-changing experience for him, for all of us in fact!

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        • McEff says:

          A very serious situation. Good job he wasn’t alone and had people around him who were able to assist and get him to hospital. I bet anyone who has back-packed has had a close shave where the flysheet or flapping door has nearly caught fire. I was taught never to set a stove off inside a tent, which is fine advice for perfect weather, but in wind and rain you have no option but to cook under the flysheet.

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          • EchoohcE says:

            That does sound nasty. I’ve been on the same campsite as someone unknown whose tent disappeared in a trice from catching fire, fortunately the person wasn’t in it at the time.
            Having said that, I also almost always cook under the flysheet (unless I’m bivouacing without a tent!) but do it ever so carefully, start with a tiny flame (gas) put the pan on then turn it up slooowly, and pay close attention to it the whole time. Like Alen says, if you did it outside in the wind etc it would take forever, especially if you were low on gas.

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  4. Excellent first line and so true – also true of sleeping in a car in cold weather as well! We did have it much tougher in those days and I remember the frost patterns on the windows in the morning – I have no idea now how I coped back then as I really can’t cope with being cold nowdays. I’ve definitely gone very soft! 😦
    Carol.

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    • McEff says:

      Yes, frost patterns on the windows – and on the inside! And I can still smell the warm rubber of those hot-water bottles. And you’re right about sleeping in a car – always loads of condensation and as cold as hell. You wonder how we ever survived.
      Cheers, Alen

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  5. That tent looks about as weatherproof as a string bag! It’s amazing you survived to tell the tale. But isn’t it interesting how suffering the elements only makes you appreciate the great outdoors even more; as if you have to suffer to get closer to it. Of course, without the inevitable relief of a hot car/room/bath life would soon become Neolithic with all that entails.

    Chris

    And that view of Newlands Valley took my breath away when I first saw it from that angle.

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    • McEff says:

      Hi Chris. That was the worst tent I’ve ever owned. It was an Ultimate Tramp (don’t do a Google image search for that like I’ve just done or you’ll have the police round) and I bought it because I read a glowing review in The Great Outdoors mag. It leaked like hell and couldn’t cope with wind. Neolithic man would have stayed in his cave if that was the alternative.
      Nice place is the Newlands valley. Great walking country.
      All the best, Alen

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  6. Hanna says:

    Hi Alen. This post is beautiful written and you made me laugh too. For that I give you 5 out of 5 ⭐
    I had to translate chapped legs twice. First from English to Danish and then from Danish to something I was familiar with. Thank God I’ve only read about it. If eternity is like a cold night in a tent I’m so grateful that I’m mortal. If you have had two frozen stiff tents you could have insulated with Rockwool.
    Yet Borrowdale tempts because you describe the Milky Way, the silence and the clear blue sky the following day.
    All the best,
    Hanna

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    • McEff says:

      Hanna, I must admit that when I posted this it didn’t enter my mind that someone would be translating “chapped legs” into Danish and then another language in order to discover the meaning. So to avoid any confusion I shall provide an explanation. When bare skin becomes red and cracked because of exposure to cold weather, the term is “chapped”. Legs and lips are particularly susceptible. Boys in England used to wear short trousers for school and always suffered from chapped legs in the winter months. I don’t know if girls in skirts suffered as well because it always seemed rude to ask. I expect they did.
      Borrowdale is a beautiful place. It is still very silent because you can’t get a mobile phone signal there. It is also famous for having the highest rainfall in England.
      All the best, Alen

      Liked by 1 person

  7. JohnBoy says:

    Back in 1980 at the tender age of 13, a friend and I backpacked the Dales Way in our February half term. It was absolutely Baltic. After almost burning the tent down one evening with a paraffin pressure stove that passed for a blow torch, and then getting imprisoned in the tent the next morning by a frozen metal zip (which my companion almost did some unmentionable on to free it), we decided against the next night under canvas. We slept in some village public toilets, sat under one of those old hand dryers taking it in turns to keep it going. Happy days.

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    • McEff says:

      Blimey, you’re keen, John Boy. That would have put most people off backpacking for life. I did the Dales Way at Easter, in 1976, but the weather was quite nice, and the only thing that went wrong was I became very ill in the YHA in Kettlewell after drinking too much Guinness.
      I’ve never had to resort to sleeping in a public loo. But it crossed my mind when setting out for Great Dun Fell from Dufton only this winter that the Dufton loo would be quite comfortable because it’s heated. Bear that in mind if you’re doing the Pennine Way.
      Cheers, Alen

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  8. EchoohcE says:

    Thanks for another well written and amusing retrospective post Alen! At 51 I’m old enough to remember the frozen milk bottles on the doorstep, ice patterns on the inside of the windows, no central heating or hot water – tin bath in front of the coal fire – and lighting the fire using the newspaper across the opening to make a strong draught, and it bursting into flames. I did it myself a few times as a young kid – what fun!
    That’s a good description of eternity. I haven’t actually done that much camping in winter, but one night stands out as being pretty miserable. Two days ice climbing on Ben Nevis in February 1983, three of us in a two person tent (Vango Force Ten) on snow, I was on the outside in my cheap three-season sleeping bag. The tent’s owner was in the middle! If only winter nights weren’t so long and dark anyway it wouldn’t be so bad – but then it wouldn’t be winter, would it?!
    Top tip – if you have a bivvy bag, use it over your sleeping bag in the tent! The condensation then freezes on the outside of your bivvy bag, thus avoiding a wet sleeping bag, as well as being extra warm and snug. I’ve done this and it works a treat!
    Cheers, Mike

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    • McEff says:

      Hi Mike. Like you I have never aspired to a proper winter sleeping bag – mine always being the three-season type at best, occasionally with an old tartan travelling rug thrown over and an extra layer of clothing. Once even with waterproofs on as well – and that’s a night I do not want to repeat.
      I’ll remember the bivvy bag tip. I’ve only used one once, and that was through curiosity rather than necessity. It resulted, as you have guessed, in a sleeping bag dripping with condensation – so using it as a blanket rather than a bag sounds like sound sense.
      All the best, Alen

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      • EchoohcE says:

        I’d better clarify what I was on about – the night on Ben Nevis in Feb ’83 was just a cheap three season artificial sleeping bag. And I have spent a fair few miserable long nights wearing everything I had available and coats over the top of the bag. I’ve never slept in an orange plastic bag.
        I have to confess I have more recently purchased an Iceline four season down sleeping bag for use at cold times! I got it cheap, about 14 years ago at the Mountain Equipment factory outlet shop in Glossop, and it had been used and returned! Think I paid about £100 for it (new price was about £320) and it is really nice. The bivvy bag is a proper army surplus Goretex type, got for about £45, twenty years ago in Bristol – also really nice. I put the sleeping bag inside that! Great for cold bivouac trips and even in the tent when it is really cold – like the time I was on Skye around Easter 2013 when it was -5 to -8C every night for a week!(Inside the tent!!) The condensation then is on the outside of the bivvy bag.
        Not very retro I know but these days I’m a firm believer in ‘comfort camping’. Sorry if I’ve disappointed you Alen! I’m not the type to spend a lot of money though, it has to be said. My favourite small tent for the last 12 years has been a ‘Pro Action – Tiger Paws model’ bought from Argos for £20. Well actually two of them, my mum wanted one ‘cos it was so good, and I went back for more. They were then selling them even cheaper as there was a sale on so it was two for £30. Bargain! Can’t get them in the shops anymore. They were very well constructed. A bit snug for two but ideal for one person.
        Cheers, Mike

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        • McEff says:

          You’ve got me thinking I should update my gear, Mike. Mind, I did buy a new Vango Nitro 200 tent a couple of years back and I’m very pleased with it. But I’ve never had much comfort in the sleeping bag department.
          Alen

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          • EchoohcE says:

            It’s never too late to update gear Alen. Just thought on – about ten years ago I also got a ‘Thermarest’ thin inflatable camping mat – they’re lush.
            Mike

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  9. Jo Woolf says:

    Oh dear, Alen – you did inflict pain on yourself, in the pursuit of pleasure! But the photos are fab. Look at that sky – a real winter blue, with snow on the hills. Colin and I used to go camping in Scotland in the early 80s but it was usually in September and we stayed on camping sites – even so, I remember the frost in the tent and the abundance of insects in the toilet blocks. We had a Mini, too. Love your stories, so crisply remembered and well told! 🙂

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    • McEff says:

      Hi Jo. I think the pain was part of the fun. Stiff upper lip and all that. Having said that, I’ve decided I’ve reached a time in my life where a little comfort is appreciated – not much, just a little.
      Scotland can be quite cold in September. I’ve been caught in snow at that time of year.
      All the best, Alen

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Steve Bibby says:

    “Body heat is sucked into the ungrateful ground” is such a lovely turn of phrase, and sums it up well. I camped, a fortnight ago, at Thornthwaite and, for the first time, enjoyed the luxury that is an airbed. I know it’s not old school, but previously the effect of a) being what is sometimes described as “a big unit”; b) a cold, uneven and unyielding ground; and c) heavy, heavy gravitational force, has always left me racked with pain for days. After a day walking up, down and around Haystacks it was blissful.

    Thanks for the story Alen. I can’t ever see me wanting to do that in January.

    Cheers

    Steve

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    • McEff says:

      Hi Steve. I must admit, you do get a decent night’s sleep on an airbed. On the rare occasions my wife goes camping with me she insists that we use one, and it does eradicate those first painful moments when you crawl out of your sleeping bag and attempt to straighten your legs and back.
      Oh, the joys of camping.
      Cheers, Alen

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  11. By, I’m frozen now, after reading that! Thankfully I’ve never yet been that cold in a tent (and would rather not be) but I do remember stuff like regularly scraping ice off the inside of the bedroom windows on a morning.
    I have had an eternity in a tent though, one night. Mine was at 12,000ft on Mount Whitney(California) when I was totally not acclimatised to the altitude. I had the most unbelievably awful headache, felt horrendously nauseous, couldn’t sleep of course and every second was definitely an eternity…

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    • McEff says:

      That sounds like sheer purgatory, Chrissie. Do you ever wonder why we put ourselves through stuff like that when we could be at home in a nice warm bed, reading a good book and with a cup of tea on the bedside cabinet?
      Cheers, Alen

      Liked by 1 person

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