Neither of us said it out loud, but our collective pace was a sign that we were both in agreement – it was time to get off the hill. It’s across the tops of the cheeks that I felt it most – the almost metallic sting of the Helm Wind – brutally attacking the one bit of me not wrapped under layers of protective kit. France has the Mistral, North Africa has the Sirocco and Northern England has the Helm Wind – an easterly which blows relentlessly across the Northern Pennines and in particular Cross Fell, the highest point on the Pennines.
Yesterday the mountain had been completely different. The sun had woken from its winter stupor and proudly shone through the trees. The usually deserted tiny car park had been full of happy, surprised walkers and landscape photographers, eager to take advantage. Our destination was Greg’s Hut, a bothy which, sitting on the 700m contour line, is the highest one in England. But first we wanted to bag the summit. On the way up we passed a local, well into his late 70s, methodically and happily trudging up the path in the sun – a weekly walk apparently. “I go two-thirds of the way whatever the weather, then back down to meet my wife for cake”. The locals here are made of granite.
At just seventy feet shy of three thousand, the top of Cross Fell is treeless, desolate, flat topped, utterly beautiful, and on our visit bitterly, bitterly cold. The final few hundred feet to the summit was the Helm Wind’s territory – a place very different to the gentle path beneath. We tried to eat a late lunch sheltering behind the drystone summit shelter, but our fingers went quickly numb out of gloves – it was time to find the bothy. We’d tried to pack as light as possible. But caution got the better of us and we were carrying a bit of firewood. The weather continued to deteriorate rapidly and our first glimpse of the bothy sitting stoically in the gloom was a welcome sight.
A candle flickering in the small window announced it was occupied. Our local friend Luke, an occasional fell-runner, had arrived half an hour earlier, and had got the little wood burner gloriously roaring away with the provided coal, which he had assured us would be there. We sheepishly didn’t mention the wood in our packs. Such solitude and isolation strips everything quickly away. No electricity, no digital pings, bleeps or distractions. Shelter, food, heat, water. Sometimes it’s all you need. It was good to just talk without intermittently staring at our phones. We cooked, ate and drank a little. Why does whisky taste better in bothies?
The next morning the fire had gone out and getting out of our warm bags took some time. All the water we’d le in the bothy’s second room had frozen overnight. We quickly lit stoves and made co ee to help us get going in the cold. Yesterday’s happy sunsoaked mountain had been replaced by a more familiar angry grey one. Thick cold cloud gripped the fell.
I was a bit jealous of Luke as he bounded away in his lightweight gear – his local nous would have him down in no time. Encased in waterproofs, heads down, we battled the annoyingly persistent wind along a trail of cairns towards the Eden Valley before eventually emerging below the cloud.
Turning right off the M6 where we normally turn left for the Lakes had been worth it. The fells in this part of Cumbria are another world, as desolate and wild as anywhere in England.
“Dufton village is a good base for exploring Cross Fell. There’s an 18th century inn and a YHA. High Cup Nick is another classic British hill walk if you have an extra day. But do not leave without trying the cumberland sausage!” Luke D, Eden Valley local lad.