I saw the window in a photograph. A small pane of glass, surrounded by stone, looking down to a valley which cupped a silver lake in its craggy hands. A river snaked away from the lake and into the hills, towards the slate bothy which surrounded the window. Distant hills rose beyond the lake, keeping the lake cut off from the mysterious hidden landscape beyond. The week before, I had woken up and gone to work with the image of this lake framed in the window lingering in my mind. I had to go to this bothy. I had to find it.
I booked a bed for the night in the Lakes so that I could get an early start on the bothy the following morning. It was dark by the time I arrived in Borrowdale. The long, low Youth Hostel building sat at the end of a winding single track. Its broad yellow windows winked against the black sky. The tarmac glittered with nighttime frost.
I sat on a stool at the wood-panelled bar with my map spread out next to me. The December night pressed in at the windows. A coal fire roared in the grate and kept the cold in retreat. Across the next room, I could hear the cheerful clatter of pans and muddle of voices coming from the self-catering kitchen. Wonky bookshelves leaned against a far corner, stuffed with books and maps. Every available piece of wall space was covered with paintings showing famous Lake District landscapes in luminous colours. The hills were depicted under soaring blue skies in the height of summer. Nobody had chosen to show off the best of the Fells by painting them in the middle of winter. The conditions that were waiting for me up there were uncertain; I had never done winter walking before. Only a week earlier, the Midlands had been covered in snow and ice, and most of the office hadn’t made it in to work. Perched here, with the fire gently warming my toes, I had a niggling thought that it might be unwise to find and sleep in an off-grid stone hut in the middle of winter. I pushed it to the back of my mind. I was well prepared and, besides, I had promised myself that I would find that window. Mulling over a pint of Helvellyn Gold, I listened to other hikers talking about their days, trying to get an idea of the conditions on the fells. Okay by Haystacks, supposedly, but increasingly icy further up, around Red Pike. That would do it, I thought, reassured. I didn’t need to climb high to reach my goal.
The next morning, I woke early. It was still dark when I rang the bell at the Youth Hostel front desk.
“Just so you know, I might not be back tonight,” I grinned. I strapped myself in to my rucksack and waved as I left the warm panelled reception and hopped out into the frost.
At Honister Slate Mine, I picked up a path along a dismantled railway line. Thick mist rolled across the hills and I stopped to add an extra fleece, gloves, and a hat. Sections of the old railway were covered with thick sheets of white ice. Looking back on to the slate mine was not beautiful. It was like being on the surface of the moon. Walls of slate cut across the hills. Two black rock figures guarded either side of the road, escorting tourists to the visitor centre at the mine.
Over the brow of the hill, the terrain changed from industrial and purposeful to rugged, winding fells. The path morphed from gravel, to grass, to long plates of rock scattered with sharp edges. Purple slate glistened in the rain. Green and brown heather crawled across the slopes. I negotiated a large black boulder and, on the other side, the valley opened out before me. Reds and greens were vivid through the mist, rolling down the hill and touching the iron lake below. My excitement built. I had to be close because this view into the valley was an exact copy of the scene I had seen framed in the photographs of the bothy window. I checked the map. Somewhere along here, I had to break from the main path and skirt around the form of one of the hills. As I stood on a grassy ledge looking for the best route down, I saw two backpacks move out from behind a rock below. The backpacks were each attached to a person. Crestfallen, I saw that they were already where I needed to be. Their bags were too big to be day packs: they had to be staying for the night. I had got here early to bag a spot sleeping under the view that had made its way into my dreams, and I was already too late. My stomach churned with disappointment but I was, at least, glad that I had booked backup accommodation. I came off the ledge and scooted onto the steep gravel-and-slate track running off the main path, determined to visit the hut anyway. As I came round the ledge, I was surprised to see the people with the backpacks heading up the hill to meet me on the path.
“Hello!” They called. “Are you heading to the bothy?”
Far from meeting these people on their way to the bothy, I had arrived here early enough to meet the previous night’s inhabitants leaving. We had a chat about the bothy and the weather, and they departed.
“We’ve left a bottle of cider in there for you,” they said. “Have a good night!”
Grinning, I bounded across the last bit of gravel path and turned the corner. I scanned the hillside. For a minute, all I could see were wet slabs of purple-green rock. Then, my eyes adjusted. A chimney morphed out of the rock, followed by a roof, a wall and, finally, the window. I had to take my bag off to duck through the tiny door. The coals from last night’s fire were still glowing red in the stove and it was warm inside the little stone room. There was a wooden bench each along the back and one side of the bothy. Scattered around the room were items other visitors had left behind for the next people to stumble across the hut: some tins of food; sleeping mats; the promised bottle of cider. I leant on the windowsill and stared out of the window. The mist lifted slightly and allowed me to see the lake, perfectly framed. Edged by the dark stone, the reds, greens, and purples of the fells burned through the gloom. I couldn’t stop smiling. I could stare at this view for days.
I inspected the visitors’ book and found that there was no entry from the guys who had stayed last night. I flicked back to the start before sitting down to write my own. The place had been occupied almost every night; three notebooks had been filled since January. Some of the entries took up entire pages, and had illustrations; others were only a sentence, or names and a date. I added my entry to the ‘October – ’ book. I wondered how long it would be before this book was filled, too.
I spread my sleeping bag out on the bench under the window. I put it out upside-down at first because I was staring out of the window instead of concentrating on what I was doing. I loaded some food into the small, detachable portion of my rucksack and slipped out to explore the misty fells until the light began to fail in the mid-afternoon.
A fire roared in the stove. I leaned against the wall, by the dark window, with my down jacket pulled tight around me and my feet pointing towards the heat. My boots were near the fire, steaming slightly as the ice water from the boggy ground evaporated from them. I found my hip flask by the light of the fire. I took a sip. The whisky slipped over my tongue and warmed my throat. The wind howled past the window. I had no idea what time it was. Across the lake, a light popped on. Another joined it a few minutes later. A car’s headlights wound around the hills, and then disappeared out of sight. There was no point trying to use my phone; it was useless with no signal and no wi-fi. In the bothy, time had slowed down – or maybe it was travelling at the speed it was always supposed to. I fed another piece of dry wood into the flames.
A note on bothies:
When I arrived at Warnscale Head I was overjoyed to find a well-maintained stove and chimney, solid wooden benches, and a carbon monoxide alarm inside.
This, like many other bothies across the UK, is maintained by the Mountain Bothies Association. The MBA and their volunteers do fantastic work to keep bothies open and free to use. If you’re thinking of visiting a bothy, please check out the guidelines for using a bothy first, and donate to the MBA if you are able.