Follow the River to the End of the Valley
These are the directions if you want to reach YHA Black Sail, one of Britain's most isolated hostels—one that could be mistaken for its Scottish cousin, the Bothy. Under the protective bulk of Great Gable at the head of the Liza river, sits a one-story building; clad in Lake District slate, it’s a welcome sight for walkers coming down the Ennerdale Valley, or over the hills from Wasdale, Borrowdale and Buttermere. Black Sail sits at the convergence of many trails making it a special kind of secret. If you know it’s there you’ll have no trouble finding it.
A dreary Monday in October is an unusual time to explore this lesser-known corner of the Lake District but we set off undeterred. As we walk, the path plays hide-and-seek between the pines. One minute we’re tramping rusty gravel along the riverside, next we find ourselves squinting at wet grass for signs of wear. Like a stereoscope we’re transported to Norway, to British Columbia, to Sweden and back to Ennerdale under honey leaves and a retreating fern line. We’re not aiming for Black Sail but we’ve heard rumours and as the rain seeps under our cuffs, the lure of the hostel grows.
Our plan to climb Pillar, on the north edge of the valley, is scuppered by low cloud so we content ourselves with gazing up at the sawtooth ridge swirling in a cloak of fog and rain. We’re entranced by a valley that couldn’t be further from the pastoral fells of the eastern lakes; Ennerdale is imperfect, the water has a grey tinge and its flanks are swathed in a forest that’s broken only by streams rattling down with unpredictable intensity. We emerge from the trees and a game of ‘imagine you’re in Scandinavia’ to the scream of a chainsaw and west coast accents bouncing of Kirk Fell. Forestry work brings us sharply back to reality. We might be in the wild heart of an adventure but life goes on for the guardians of the valley so we move swiftly past. I’m wet and keen to find the hostel.
The river Liza is silent now we’re walking above her thrashing, autumnal water and as if in defeat she begins to diminish until a kissing gate tells us we have arrived at the top of the valley. The corner of a roof is just visible in the dip ahead. We stop and take a moment to enjoy the almost perfect crown of peaks bearing down on us. Great Gable remains under cloud cover – the moodiest of the Cumbrian fells and for that one of my favourites – but the green, marbled tops of the others are momentarily visible creating the impression of being in the bottom of a huge bowl. This feeling increases as we descend to Black Sail and duck into the open door, the next sheet of rain at our heels.
We enter a stark room of exposed brick, oddly matched chairs and a log burner that sits like a king toad opposite the door. An assortment of clothing has been draped over the ancient frame beside the fire and I notice a man wrapped around himself in an attempt to keep warm. “The kettle’s just boiled if you want tea.” His accent is Dutch. He inclines his head towards a doorway leading to a well-equipped kitchen and honesty cafe.
As we cradle scalding, enamel mugs with sleeved hands, waves of rain and fog drift past the open door offering us only glimpses of the fells but we can feel their weight through Black Sail’s damp walls. Even inside there’s no forgetting where we are. We’re at the end of the valley and the only way out is over the hills.