Have you ever been to sea in a tiny boat during a storm? I think we just did that. Or at least now we can really imagine what it might be like.
We’ve been in the Lake District for many weeks now during a peculiarly wet summer. The worst in many years according to every person we’ve talked to here. We’ve been outside in a tent for most of our time here. We thought we’d seen the worst weather. But we were wrong. Very wrong, in fact.
Karen and her magic pants Walla Crag hike in Keswick – she’s dry on the inside
After doing some laundry and getting our supplies together in Keswick, our plan was to venture over to Great Langdale. It’s one of the most famous of the Lake District’s dales and home to the Langdale Pikes, the high peaks that surround the valley. Great Langdale has been a human settlement for many thousands of years and was once the source for stone axe heads traded all over Europe among Neolithic people. So given it’s high mountains, it’s beauty and history it was an obvious place for us to camp and hike.
We waited two extra days in Keswick for a break in the rain that would allow us to pack up our tent and bags without starting out already soaking wet. One morning, the rain was holding off and we had some wind to help dry off the tent. So we packed up and headed off to a farm outside of Chapel Stile in Langdale. We arrived in the afternoon and were dropped off at the bus stop outside the village store. We walked out of town toward the farm; it was a long walk from the road at the entrance up to the farm house. There were only a handful of tents at the site. The road was very muddy, a clear sign of recent weather. As we trudged up to the front door of the house, it started raining again. We felt oddly fortunate. It had not rained since early in the morning. That meant there were actually several hours without rain. Amazing.
As we approached, the farmer was on the phone with someone. He was talking in a very subdued monotone, the way a person does when having a sensitive conversation in public.
“[Mumble, mumble]. Yes. Okay. [Mumble]. Well… I’ve got a couple of customers just now,” he said very quietly. I’ll talk to you later.”
He hung up and turned to us. In the same sort of sad monotone he said, “Yuh awright? Just the one night then?”
“Actually, we’d like to stay three nights,” I said.
He frowned, craned his neck around the corner and looked out from his doorway at the weather. Then he said sadly, “the weather looks not good, to tell you honestly.”
I told him we’d been in the Lake District since August 7.
“Oh. You’ve had a bad month then. I don’t remember an August like this ever. Rain just hasn’t stopped.”
Oh, we know. But we were determined to tough it out.
We paid and then quickly trudged over to the field to choose a patch of grass on which to pitch our tent. The field was uneven and soaking wet. The ground had absorbed all it could. It was now being pushed past its limit. There were mud tracks everywhere, deep and sloppy. It’s a great campsite, but the weather was obviously torturing this poor man’s farm. Maybe that was why he seemed so sad.
With the rain coming down, we went at it with alacrity, setting down our packs on the wet ground, and pulling out the tent and putting it up as fast as we could. Suddenly, we heard a loud crack. We looked at each other and then turned toward the tent. It looked a bit askew on one side. My heart sank. While I was tightening one of the guy lines, Karen was also tightening one of the straps at the other side. We were rushing because we already wet and the weather was getting worse. Rushing made us sloppy. The sound we heard was one of the joints in a tent pole snapping. Oops. Good start just before a storm hits.
Luckily we were carrying a repair kit with us. It took me two minutes to slide on a temporary brace. Hopefully, that would hold out. Replacing the broken tube would have to wait until we could be inside.
After we set up, the rain really began in earnest. I boiled noodles in a pot to make dinner, keeping the stove just outside the vestibule. This way only my arm would get soaked. Karen crawled inside the tent and stayed there.
There was no wifi here and our iPhone was getting no reception in this valley. A GPRS signal would pop in for thirty seconds or a minute, then cut out again for a long while. If you ever had a Motorola Razr, GPRS would have been the kind of cellular signal you used to make calls. Forget about Google Maps or the internet. We were cut off. The weather was getting bad, fast. It was four o’clock and already felt dark. We ate dinner, then read to each other before turning in early. We went to sleep to the sound of wind and rain outside.
We awoke to rain. And a signal. For some reason, when Karen held the phone, we got intermittent internet. As soon as I grabbed the phone, the signal would die. I seem to have some weird mobile signal-repellent power. She even got the UK Met Office (AKA, the liars) and checked the weather. Today would be mixed but mostly dry until the afternoon when a heavy rainstorm would come in. Perfect. We could do a hike and return before it got too bad. We chose to believe (again) and decided to head up the valley to Dungeon Ghyll and climb up the Cumbria Way to Stake Pass. We’d been up the other side from Borrowdale but missed this section.
The sheep were so wet that they stood still and let us take their photo
It was early yet. We suited up in our rain gear, magic pants and all, and then started out. About an hour later, the sky opened up. We were at Dungeon Ghyll when it started. We decided to head back to seek lunch in Chapel Stile. The fells would be covered in cloud and fog anyway, so to continue would be useless. The rain was heavy now and we were getting soaked. Our boots, our jackets, but not our pants. After we’d been walking three hours, we were drowning rats. We found the teashop and went upstairs, took off our wet gear and took over the entire coat rack to hang everything up. Sorry folks.
We stayed in the café for three hours, eating lunch and dessert, coffee and tea. Chatting with local people. It was lovely but the weather just got worse. Finally we faced facts, knowing we had another 20 minutes in the rain before we got back to our tent. Hopefully the farm had a drying barn where we could hang our things.
When we got back, the wind had started to howl, blowing the rain sideways across the valley. The farmer’s wife told me, also in a sad voice, there was no drying barn.
We crawled into the tent, took off our wet things and laid them out as best we could.
We knew in our hearts that given the 97 per cent humidity and overnight condensation in the vestibule, there was no way anything would dry out.
It had been raining now for 24 hours without a break. The Met Office issued a weather statement warning of extremely high winds and heavy rain and thunder. But we knew that already. Our theory is that the weather office just looks outside and then makes “predictions” based on what is actually happening.
I could be a weatherman like that. At six o’clock, I’d put the chance of precipitation for seven o’clock at 50 per cent, say. You know, that way it could go either way. Just before seven o’clock, when I see it’s pissing down with rain, I would just change the “prediction” to greater than 90 per cent. This same charade can continue indefinitely every hour after that.
Oh MET office… why do you lie?
Our real theory is that the Met Office is just an extension of the UK’s public health branch and they use relentlessly optimistic forecasts “today is a rainbow opportunity day!” and vague platitudes sprinkled with words like “clear” or “sunny breaks with showers” as a way to prevent a pandemic of suicidal depression in the face of a weather reality that will break most people’s capacity for hope. They need a preventative fiction to believe in.
Anyway, listening to the growing howl of wind and the heavy wet lashing against our tent, our own hope was seriously challenged.
You might have seen our video of the night storm at Chapel House farm in Stonethwaite. It was ridiculous, but our Hilleberg came through flawlessly. It gave us confidence. This night in Langdale was making us nervous. One pole was broken and the wind speed and rain was much worse than it was that night a couple of weeks earlier. We made a long video of Karen suiting up to leave the tent in the storm because she had to pee. It was like watching an astronaut suit up for an EVA. Unfortunately, it never got recorded.
Suffice it to say that the night was pretty bad. Our footprint kept lifting off the ground and our tent took a terrific beating in the wind. It didn’t feel like camping. It felt more like fishing in the North Sea in a cyclone. We looked at each other and knew it was over. It was time to pack it in and get a B&B. We’d been told that September weather often improves, but we knew now that this was not likely. We had an apartment booked in Cambridge but we were meant to camp five more days before then. That’s when we decided to pull the ejector seat.
In weather like this, you can’t enjoy camping and hiking. When walking back from the teashop in the afternoon, we passed a man going in the other direction. Soaking wet, he couldn’t even smile at us as he passed. He just looked up and, recognizing us as members of the same soaking wet fellowship, he shook his head and said, “We must be mad.” Indeed, we must be.
Back in our tent, using a technique Karen felt works best, she was holding the iPhone up in the air in one corner of the tent. Karen suddenly had a signal. She looked up B&Bs in Kendal. Our bus to Cambridge was in Kendal, so it made sense for us to just go there the next day. The problem was finding somewhere this late in the game. It’s hard to find vacancies in the Lake District. She was able to send off a quick email to one before she lost the signal. My email was open, so to save time, she pretended to be me, but we both knew if I touched the phone we’d lose the internet, maybe forever. We couldn’t take that chance.
We waited in the dark. I couldn’t read to Karen. She couldn’t hear me over the storm. So we just lay there while Karen tried to teach me how to take a selfie while laying down and looking relaxed. I failed.
“Head up, no relax your chin, now look natural, be sure to smile….”
A few minutes later, an email came in from Mandy. She had vacancy for two nights. We said we’d take them and explained where we were. Then the internet died.
We slept a bit fitfully, but a lot happier knowing no matter how wet we got, we’d be dry by tomorrow afternoon.
We made it through the night, the tent didn’t fail us – again. And by some weather miracle the rain stopped long enough for us to wipe down the tent and pack up it up, a little damp, but not soaking wet. We made our way to Kendal.
Mandy and Brian run a fantastic B&B called Balcony House. They are both wonderful and kind, and they’re place is spotlessly clean. Gorgeous sheets, really comfortable bed, excellent water pressure and one of the best breakfasts we’ve ever had at a B&B. Mandy and Brian only had three nights available and Karen was not going back outside. Recommended by Mandy and Brian, we stayed at Hillside B&B, for our remaining three nights. Wendy and Richard were equally wonderful. Hillside was equally comfortable and clean. The professionalism and cleanliness of these B&Bs has reinforced our growing cynicism regarding Airbnb. We don’t see the value of it. The platform isn’t worth it in England anyway. If Airbnb’s were £25 a night to stay in someone’s home, that would be one thing. But they’re charging the same as professional, well-appointed B&Bs that provide full cooked breakfast and a standard level of service. Bed bug protocols? When we asked one Airbnb host what their protocol was for ensuring their apartments stay bed bug free – they didn’t even know what a bed bug looked like. Which means they haven’t thought about it. When they get them (not if), they will not know how to treat the place. This is troubling.
Like so much about technology and the “sharing” economy, a lot of it is hype that delivers very little real value to consumers. There may be gems on Airbnb but they’re not easy to find, especially since Airbnb seems routinely to juke search results in favour of hosts that pay to highlight their place over others. It also doesn’t seem to matter what quality a place is, the prices are all pretty consistently high – too high given what you can get from a real B&B. I know sharing platforms are popular, and they are trendy right now, but people might be getting suckered by them. Don’t believe the hype.
While we had come indoors, so to speak, we still found some interesting things to do. We visited Lancaster, a twenty minute train ride away. Lancaster Castle was fascinating. It was in continuous use as a prison and mad house for 850 years. Closed in 2011, it is still a functioning court, with both civil and criminal proceedings, so photography isn’t allowed. But we had a great time touring around and learning about its history. We also had a look at the local priory (been there since the 8th century as a church, and a Roman fort before that).
We also did a day trip to Ullswater, the lake on which I worked a quarter century ago. We walked on the local fells high above the lake, and then had lunch at the local pub I used to visit nearly every day after work. It has changed dramatically. The bar is gone, having been moved to an addition on the original inn. It was a bit sad to see nothing of what I remember. But our memories are often so ephemeral they can’t be trusted anyway. It was a great day and the weather was dry about half of the time, so we avoided getting too wet.
We are now in Cambridge getting ready for our volunteer service in Ukraine. We’re in Cambridge because it’s close enough to Heathrow for us to avoid a full overnight bus before an early morning flight to Ukraine, and big enough for us to spend a few nights relaxing and getting ready for our next journey.
When we relaunched the blog back in May 2017, we wrote a post that outlined what we were planning to do in this period, which included getting a bit of a holiday, sitting our own meditation courses, volunteering, and spending time with family – all things that are difficult to do when you are living the nine-to-five. We’ve spent the first part of our trip, on a vacation. Karen was learning how to live outside. Now this period is coming to a close, and we are very much looking forward to the next phase.
We will be in Ukraine for a month volunteering on two 10-day meditation retreats where about 160 people will participate on each one. It we’ll be a welcome, if radical, change of pace. We’ll spend our time helping other people, which always helps us.
Our next post will be from Kiev, Ukraine!
For now… here are a few photos from our time in Cambridge.