This is a blog with a slight difference. In September I’ve been doing some volunteering for the YHA (Youth Hostels Association) in Borrowdale in the Lake District, and in between times exploring the area, mainly on foot. I’ve decided that as good a way as any of describing how it’s gone is just to reproduce extracts from my daily diary, and to share some of my photos. I’ve really enjoyed my 3 weeks volunteering and am very grateful to the staff at YHA Borrowdale for giving me the opportunity to volunteer and for welcoming me into the team.
Just to provide a bit of context: I ended my most recent paid job back in August. The blog begins with me thinking about what to do next when we got back from our family summer holiday at the beginning of September. It ends when I went off to enquire about a paid role with YHA at another hostel…. so this may not be the end of my time with YHA!
I didn’t have much internet access while I was up in the Lakes and (ironically enough for a blogger) I didn’t miss it. I packed quite a lot in around my volunteering and, typing up my notes, it’s been interesting to reflect on how I spent my free time while away from the routines and conveniences of home.
I’ve included some notes* at the end to explain some of the locations/references mentioned. The geography of Borrowdale is best understood with the help of an OS map, of course…
Sat 2 September (home, ie Leeds)
I’m planning a 3-day youth hostelling trip this week. Innuendo from all members of family nudging me towards making it a more vocational trip, ie exploring volunteering opportunities. I may try and make initial enquiries tomorrow.
Sun 3 Sept (home)
I had a brief chat with Buttermere YH tonight which reassured me that a short hostel placement may be worthwhile. I’m minded to book Tues night there. Will try to get through to some other hostels again tomorrow before making a final decision.
Mon 4 Sept (home)
In fact, I decided to “apply” online for a 2 week placement at Keswick, starting on Saturday. I couldn’t get through to them on the phone so have booked tomorrow night there. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll try somewhere else….
Tues 5 Sept (Keswick YH)
Just a brief entry, as I’m going to do a more extensive report of the day in a letter home. Kids back to school. Arrived Keswick about 1.30pm. Poked around town a bit, then checked into YH. Warden’s day off, so hope to discuss tomorrow. Ran up Skiddaw by main path, returning by Skiddaw House – about 3 hours. Great!
Wed 6 Sept (Keswick YH)
A much longer report to follow here. No point writing another letter home as I’m heading home on Fri anyway… although not for long!
After a typically-fitful night in a YH dorm, I followed a gut instinct this morning and headed to Borrowdale YH to try to “catch the warden”. Come back at midday I was advised. So, returned to Keswick to go online at the library to register my interest in the opportunity. (Incidentally, the library has enough books by/about Coleridge to fill many a rainy day – a reminder that although remembered for a few poems, he was writing letters, notes and works every day – a bit like today’s bloggers!).
Returned to Borrowdale and met managers Chris and Simon. Both fellrunners, in fact Chris had been helping a Bob Graham Round-hopeful yesterday. The upshot of our chat was that I was offered a 10-day placement starting on Sunday morning. Albeit residing in a shared room. But this was almost as good an outcome for this week as I could have hoped for. I can park the car next to the hostel and Chris even offered me a free night tomorrow (which I accepted). Note the dates & accom I was offered were based on hostel availability.
Anyway, slightly reeling from all this, I was granted free parking at the hostel for the rest of the day and headed off for a run (as conspicuously as possible to confirm the impression I was the right sort). The weather was OK at this point so I headed up in the direction of Dale Head. Unlike yesterday’s long and gradual climb up Skiddaw, this was much tougher – steep and technical and not runnable all the way. Anyway, at the ridge the sight of Dale Head soaring 500 further feet above sent me heading off in the other direction – over High Spy, Maiden Moor and, finally, Catbells. A fine traverse this, with the view of Catbells and Derwent Water from Maiden Moor exceptional. The summit of Catbells a delectable spot, but heavily populated with kids and people without maps. But it is understandably a popular climb for all.
I dropped down from Catbells to Grange – tea in the café – then back to the YH alongside the river. 3 hours overall and pretty knackering, I wonder what I’ll be up for tomorrow?
Spent the evening rather hobbling around Keswick and going down to the lake. A fine view here and plenty of (older) people wandering down to the Theatre by the Lake, which looks like an attractive-enough place.
Thurs 7 Sept (Borrowdale YH)
Morning drizzle, a deteriorating forecast and aching limbs meant I was only up for rambling this morning. I chose a circuit of Derwent Water. 10 flat and pleasant miles, so fair enough, but not exactly exciting. Too many dog walkers and umbrellas to really be my thing. All inspired me into an off-piste adventure: a scramble up the side of Lodore Falls to find stretches of pools and rapids above far more interesting than the main falls themselves. The Romantic Poets seem to have been inspired by picturesque scenes… but like Scale Force you can’t get anywhere near them*. I eventually popped up on the Watendlath road, passing Surprise View (well named) and a misty Ashness Bridge on the way down.
Then back to Borrowdale YH. Nice running and walking chat with fellow hostellers. Rain coming down in buckets now. A momentary easing encouraged me into an evening run. And quite an adventure this turned out to be. I took on the hostel’s fellrunning challenge of running from the bar to the top of Castle Crag. Half a mile along the riverside path first – river in spate and much of the path underwater. Then a steep and technical climb. 17 mins 50 secs – compare the record: Ricky Lightfoot’s** 11.30! On the return, the path even more underwater – thigh deep in places. Rain torrential now, fading light and I even had to divert round a bull! Heady stuff.
Anyway, all this reassures me I’m in the right place.
Fri 8 Sept (home)
Up early after a rather better night…. drove home – back by 10.30am. Sorting washing and stuff, catching up with family, mulling over whether I’m doing the right thing. I think so. My main concern about the next 10 days is sleeping in a shared dorm and not having private space. Plan is – back to Borrowdale tomorrow.
Sat 9 Sept (Borrowdale YH)
Back in a very busy hostel – big contrast to the other night, but good to see it at full capacity.
We decided to have a family day out to make the most of our short time together. So, we went to Ingleton Waterfalls – halfway to the Lakes for me, the girls returning on the train. Waterfalls very swollen and impressive. We went from the car park to Thornton Force and back which was enough, before a drop off at lonely Clapham station.
I need to “report” at 10am tomorrow so I may squeeze in a morning run. Forecast foul tomorrow – it ended up quite nice today – Borrowdale less gloomy in the sun!
Sun 10 Sept (Borrowdale YH)
Another brief entry as another letter home will follow. Early morning run to see Blackmoss Pot – certainly would be worth a visit in hot weather. Then changing beds, hoovering and cleaning the self-catering kitchen. I enjoyed it! Then a walk in the rain to Seathwaite and back. Rain unbelievable!
Mon 11 Sept (Borrowdale YH)
Knackered now, after a very long day.
Started with a shopping trip. Drove over Honister to Cockermouth in 45 mins. Note – try it in the other direction, to avoid the steep descent at the top. Sainsbury’s. Ended up rushing back due to trying to find a postbox, roadworks in Keswick and getting stuck behind the Borrowdale bus – so 45 mins by this route too! Back to the hostel at 9.58am, 2 mins before my shift started.
Straight into bed changing, then hoovering the whole hostel (3 hours!) and doing the kitchen. I’ve now got my shift sheet for the week. 7am start tomorrow, bar duty Wed eve, then home Thurs and Fri. Fingers crossed I’ll be able to run the Dale Head race on Sunday.
Weather much improved, so my evening adventure was up Bessyboot from Stonethwaite, then returning via Tarn at Leaves and Comb Gill. Fellrunning in the Lake District can be at a whole new level to what I’m used to! Not much of this route was really runnable. Very steep climb, rough ground on top and tricky, slippery descent. Set off around 5pm and was surprised to find it was 6.30pm on top. Had to keep a cool head on the way down as I missed the path and the light was beginning to fade. Superb country though – didn’t see a soul. Back to the hostel just after 7pm.
Tues 12 Sept (Borrowdale YH)
Fitful night, conscious of the early start. Donned apron and natty catering headwear and straight into knocking up packed lunches, cleaning fridges and industrial-scale washing up. An intense 2 and a half hours but the free leftover fried breakfast a good consolation! 2 further hours of bed-changing a light relief by comparison.
After lunch I had a nice chat with colleagues in the staff house. The atmos of a shared student house, and a good bunch.
Afternoon trip to Keswick for a bit more food and to catch up with the outside world at the library. Then another run up Castle Crag, this time in much better conditions than last week, hence 16.58, almost a minute’s improvement. I returned a different way this time – dropping round the back of the crag and traversing to Seatoller – a good runnable route. Note to return to Castle Crag with camera due to the spectacular view from the cairn by the slate heap.
It’s been very easy falling into conversation with hostellers this week – a nice aspect of being here and made easier by having my volunteering as an ice-breaker. Tomorrow, rain forecast – a shame as I’m not on till 6pm.
Wed 13 Sept (Borrowdale YH)
Today’s shift started at 6pm, so I was interested to see how I could make the most of the day beforehand and still be ready for work. Particularly as the forecast was poor.
So, I just set out, walking initially up a pleasant little fell at the back of the hostel – High Doat. Weather OK-ish, so I decided to start recce-ing some of the Dale Head race route. Got to the top of the mine and decided to go for the summit. In the end, I got the full variation, including a brief shelter behind the summit cairn from pelting hail, before the clouds parted to reveal the classic view of Newlands. No doubt it will be a tough race on Sunday, with local knowledge a distinct advantage.
Had a quiet afternoon dozing and reading, including a brief time on the bench by the river in sunshine!
Then to my first ever evening behind a bar. Very manageable as it turned out – busy enough and the systems all seemed to work. Nice to chat too, which by my standards I’ve been doing a lot of here.
Tomorrow – housekeeping shift 10am-4pm, then home till Sat.
Fri 15 Sept (home)
Yesterday’s housekeeping shift included my first taste of emptying bins & cleaning sinks/mirrors. Then drove to Leeds, meeting all at the climbing wall – a happy reunion. Catching up with domestics at home today.
Sun 17 Sept (Borrowdale YH)
Bitty Saturday morning supervising an emergency plumber to fix a leaking loo. He fixed it, I paid him, it started leaking worse than before. Had to call him back which meant Rosie missed her cornet class – a shame. Then back to Borrowdale, and a nice evening chat with colleagues in the staff house.
Early Sunday morning shift – 3 hours of frenetic activity which flew by, serving around 50 breakfasts. A seamless exercise in cooking, serving and cleaning.
After my shift a real treat – a 10 minute walk to register for a fell race! And the first half of it – on a perfect day for running – went swimmingly. Up to the top of Dale Head in 40 minutes – I think this must be the longest continual uphill run I have ever done. Misfortune 100ft into the descent though. The sole parted from the rest of my shoe! Somehow I managed to effect a descent with a flapping sole hanging on by a thread, but it was a descent significantly slowed and accompanied by plenty of cursing and bum-sliding. I still finished in 1hr 7mins though – quicker than I was expecting. New pair of shoes tomorrow!
Nice evening walk a third of the way up Bessyboot as you view it from the hostel. Great view from the top of some rock slabs which provided some interesting scrambling opportunities.
Mon 18 Sept (Borrowdale YH)
I initially resisted offers from colleagues to go to the pub last night, pleading aching limbs. About 10pm though I realised I could drive there and join them for last orders. Perhaps I should have gone earlier – my sparkling mineral water contrasted rather with their high spirits…
Another early morning shift today, but only 16 breakfasts, so not as manic. Then cleaning bogs & showers for the first time – lovely. Afternoon trip into Keswick to spend £xxx (!) on a new pair of running shoes – the assistant droned on at me for a full hour, by which time I would have done anything to get out of there.
Evening bar shift 6pm-9.30pm. And so I successfully negotiated my first split shift day.
Have told Chris I want to stay longer. He’s OK in principle – needs to work out my accommodation – may involve some time living/working at Honister YH***, which I’d be OK about.
Tues 19 Sept (Borrowdale YH)
Glorious day of weather, but had to deal with working the housekeeping shift first – lots of hoovering and glass shining.
Chris let me knock off half an hour early, which gave me the chance to make the most of the conditions, and try out the new shoes! So, climbed up Bessyboot as you see it from the hostel (strictly speaking, “High Knott”) – an exciting scramble. Then along the tops a bit through a moonscape of bumps, crags and hollows – great country on a clear day like today.
I then dropped steeply down into Langstrath next to Caw Crag – an infinity of climbing possibilities here. This brought me down right next to Blackmoss Pot, and I couldn’t resist a late-season dip. Excruciatingly cold, but I managed to effect an “immersement” by clinging on to the rocks on the side. But what a place – water as deep as the rocks are high that surround (and conceal) it. Back down the valley to the hostel.
After finishing at 4pm on Thursday, I’m now scheduled to start at 3pm Monday, with my accommodation for next week being Honister. So, a nice long weekend ahead.
Wed 20 Sept (Borrowdale YH)
Another early shift – breakfast for 40 teenagers by 7.30am, then rest of the morning clearing up the teenage mess in their rooms.
Afternoon off initially into Keswick but had an urge to “get out of the Lake District” so plumped for visiting Whitehaven. Not beautiful, but a peculiarly fascinating place. A huge old dock in a bay framed with cliffs – the town sloping down with a surround of hills. Walked to the end of “The Beacon”, then a wander round the attractive Georgian terraces of this planned town. A real maritime feel. Fish and chips in a bus shelter as the rain set in. Despite many attempts at regeneration, the rather inevitable air of a fading town, but the setting and sense of history very potent.
Drove home over Honister and popped into the YH, meeting the manager and checking the accom arrangements for next week. Am very glad to be getting my own room – tonight will be my final night in the shared dorm and, frankly, good job too.
Fri 22 Sept (home)
Fish and chips on Wed eve did not settle easily, but an hour in the relatively fresh air of the smokers’ shelter put me right. Surprisingly decent night’s sleep meant my final housekeeping shift of the week was do-able. As per last week, drove home via the climbing wall.
Sun 24 Sept (Honister YH)
I’m looking forward to a week in my own room at Honister…. speaking of which, I’m in it now. And I feel like a king with my stuff spread out and my own key….
Plan tomorrow is a tour of bothies and huts in the morning, before my 3pm-9pm shift down the road.
PS – I took a short diversion on my way here to look at Ullswater for the first time – it really is as beautiful as people say it is….
Mon 25 Sept (11.30pm, Honister YH)
Frankly, a bonkers day – like 3 days in one.
Early morning mist forced a change in plan, so it was an hour’s run down the old toll road, then round High Doat through the wood, a surprising waterfall (Scaleclose Force, I think) and back up the track.
Plan then was to kill time in Cockermouth but in fact the mist cleared so walking boots back on. 2 bothies visited as originally planned. Dubs Hut – pretty large but basic, and Warnscale – much smaller, cosier perhaps, and with a spectacular view – much the better first impression. What it’s actually like to spend a night in either of them though…..
Lunch and rest back at Honister, then to Borrowdale at 3pm…. only to be told “you’re not needed till 5”! So into Keswick to get a couple of things done.
So by 5 I’d already had a pretty busy day, but the busiest was yet to come! Helping with tea for the first time – for 64. Prep, serving and cleaning through to 9pm. Then an extra hour and a half helping on the bar and cleaning up after that, ie some of the late evening reception routine. Finished at 10.20pm, then back up the road in the dark to Honister. And I have to be back in before 7am tomorrow to cook breakfast for the same 64!
Plan for tomorrow afternoon = some quiet reading. I’ve got Johnny Marr’s autobiog out of the library, which I’m looking forward to.
Tues 26 Sept (Honister YH)
Too tired to write much. Chef for breakfast from 6.50am under the Catering Manager’s expert guidance. Then bogs & showers. Almost broken, returned to Honister for rest and reading. Back to Borrowdale to chef tea, then was mercifully released “early” at 7.30pm. Same shifts tomorrow, fulfilling the “second chef” role.
Thurs 28 Sept (8am, Honister YH)
Wednesday a bit of a blur, working the split shift and trying to get stuff done in the middle of the day, including rest. Physically, it’s very demanding.
Day ahead of working on the hostel grounds. Fortunately, it’s a nice day forecast.
PS – the Johnny Marr book has really helped fill the gaps over the last few days. Great to have a good book to hand for the first time in ages!
Fri 29 Sept (12.30am, home)
Now back home and it’s half midnight. Helped fill potholes, clear scrub etc, then knocked off at lunchtime. Then home, again via Thurs night climbing. For the moment, that’s the end of my time at Borrowdale….
*Robert Southey wrote the famous poem “The Cataract of Lodore”; Samuel Taylor Coleridge raved about Scale Force near Buttermere.
**top Lake District fellrunner
***YH at the top of Honister Pass, 2 miles beyond Borrowdale YH, and 1000ft higher