A visit to the Black Sail Hut is on many a hiker’s to-do-list. Hidden deep in the Ennerdale valley and surrounded by some of the Lake District’s most famous peaks, the Black Sail Hut is England’s most remote hostel. Its isolation is part of the attraction but as I was to find on my recent visit there, the Black Sail Hut is a magical place to stay, offering a warm welcome to those with weary legs passing through its doors.
I’ve looked down on Black Sail many times, a distant dot on the landscape on the way up Kirk Fell and Great Gable, or looking nervously over my shoulder to the valley below whilst scrambling up the precarious but ever so tempting Pillar Rock. The first decision you need to make when planning a trip to Black Sail is how you are going to get there. There are two modes of transport; by foot or by mountain bike as there is no road to take you there which is part of its attraction.
The hut can be found at the head of the beautiful Ennerdale valley and the road bringing you to Ennerdale stops 9km short of the hut. You are left therefore, with the following park and hike options; park up in Buttermere and amble up and over via the Scarth Gap Pass near Haystacks.
Leave a car at Honister Hause and plot a route in-between Fleetwith Pike and Grey Knotts, or drive to the end of Wasdale and make your way over via the Black Sail Pass. Of course, all these routes can be combined with ticking off a few peaks on a longer day’s outing. On a late Friday afternoon I opted for the gentler route in, heading directly up the valley from the car park at Bowness Knott.
I’ve been to the Lake District countless times, but this was my first ever visit to the Ennerdale valley. I’ve viewed it from the mountains that surround it on many occasions, but this was the first time I’d set foot on the valley floor. It’s a beautiful place. Remote, undeveloped, and largely uninhabited this is the wild valley of the Lake District. There is much work being undertaken to protect and enable the natural ecosystems of the valley, including initiatives to remove conifers and replanting native oak, birch, and juniper trees, making Ennerdale feel like a natural and wild landscape.
My walk in took me on the main access track from Bowness Knott, passing deep and dark Ennerdale Water and into Ennerdale Forest. I saw more animals than people, passing only a handful of walkers and a few mountain bikers doing various circuits from Ennerdale’s other YHA, the aptly named Ennerdale YHA. The track takes you ever so slightly uphill through the forest with views up to the fells high above you. My eyes were drawn to the prominent feature of Pillar Rock, a climbing spot at the back of Pillar which I’d spent some vertigo inducing time on many years before. It looked as precipitous from the below as it did when I was climbing across its polished slabs.
As the forest thinned out the valley head came into view; a vast glacial amphitheatre with Great Gable standing prominently above it, flanked by a supporting cast of Green Gable and Kirk Fell. At the bottom of the south facing slopes sat a small grey stoned building that was going to be my destination for the night. Black Sail has been active as a hostel since the YHA converted it from a shepherds’ bothy in 1933. It is small hut but has undeniable charm, and has been a haven for many hikers walking off the fells over all these years. There are three dorms that sleep up to 16 people in bunks. The communal room is cosy, but full of character and a great place for sharing tales of the day’s adventures over dinner and a glass of wine or two.
The hostel is very welcoming and has a lovely feel about it. There is a sign on the wall that says ‘Be Part of the Story’ and being a guest there makes you feel part of its history. Old photos adorn the walls, a warm fire heats cold bones, and the hosts are very hospitable, making sure your stay is a pleasurable one. Hostels aren’t for everyone and the thought of sharing a dorm with strangers, and even worse snorers (always pack earplugs!), is not some people’s idea of the perfect getaway. There are no plug sockets in the dorm to charge your phone, and mobile coverage is next to non-existent. However, if you are searching for escapism, tranquillity and beauty then this may be the place for you.
Staying deep in the valley allows you to be last off the fells at night and first up the mountains in the morning, as well as affording you the opportunity to sit and enjoy the changing colours of the sky at sunrise and sunset. After dinner I put my walking boots back on and marched uphill to the back of Haystacks to catch the sunset. As the sun was already on the way down, I had decided on a more direct and steeper route to the top, immediately regretting wolfing down the treacle tart and custard that I had eaten shortly before and was now sitting heavily on my stomach.
I reached the top as the sun dipped below the cloud line and sent beams of light though west facing Ennerdale, casting long shadows across the valley floor, and painting the north faces of Kirk Fell and Great Gable gold before fading into a softer red. I sat on my own, enjoying the scene, the peace, the quiet, and the solitude. There was not another person in sight. Upmarket hotels are lovely, but they cannot give you experiences like this. I slowly made my way back down whilst there was still some light and arrived back at the hut as the last hint of red was leaving the sky to reveal the next treat; a sky full of stars.
I went back into the communal area for some tea, chatting, and planning the next day’s walk before making my way to bed. The doors of all the rooms at Black Sail are left unlocked which makes it easy if you need to make your way to the toilets during the middle of the night (don’t forget your head torch). When I nipped out in the early hours the sky had cleared and the stars were as bright as I have seen them in this country. I sat on the bench, gazing up at them for a short while before the cold got the better of me and I crept back into the snoring chamber that was my dorm.
Opening the bedroom door the next morning, a long stride took me onto Cumbrian grass, and that marvellous view of the valley in front of me. A few more strides delivered me to my cooked breakfast and some well needed Columbian filter coffee to kick start my day. My fellow guests and I shared our plans for the day before packing up and preparing for our various routes out of the valley.
My return route would take me on the south side of the River Liza and a lovely path that meandered in and out of the woods at side of the river, crossing back over shortly before reaching Ennerdale Water. I was in no rush to leave though. As the other guests headed off, I made myself a cup of tea and sat outside to enjoy the simple pleasure of being sat in this marvellous location for a little longer. Ennerdale is a beautiful and serene place, and if you want to disappear from civilisation for just a small amount of time, then spending a night at the Black Sail Hut comes highly recommended.