AQ Patterdale – Finding the infamous Priest Hole!
I arrived late, having spent time driving round and round the general vicinity of Patterdale and Glenridding in search of the “static motor homes” mentioned in the joining instructions. When I finally found the right place (I needed a few extra pointers, it has to be said), I looked at our “quarters” and my eyes probably lit up! Caravans? Pink elephants might fly! We were actually staying in a magnificent YHA-style bunkhouse, fully equipped for up to 30 people and really comfortable… and there would only be a dozen of us 🙂 Things have clearly moved on since the days when Adventure Quest would send people wild camping for the week due to lack of funding!
There were lots of new faces on this occasion, in fact we were an unusually large group. On my arrival Evo, a buddy of mine and the key ML, brought a lady (the only one, actually) over and looked me dead in the eye before stating:
“You don’t remember this one, do you?”
“Ermmm…” I was completely flummoxed… and then we were introduced. And yes, I did know the girl, or know of her, rather… we had not met in person before. She and I hiked on the same mountain not so long ago… but on that day, all I had seen of her was a person-shaped form colliding with rocks in a terrifying fall. This lady had dropped 60 or 70 feet down a sheer cliff before coming to a halt, and in fact I might have recognised her boots today had she been wearing them. They had been all I could see of her from my position just beyond Crib Goch ridge: the soles of her boots poking skyward over rock where she had landed.
Yes, yes I know, digressing as usual… getting to the point, this lady was here with us in Patterdale not as a veteran, but as a guest of the person who had saved her life: Anthony “Evo” Evans, leader of our group and owner of Adventures With Heroes. Today the girl, looking very well I must say considering the horrific wounds she had suffered only a few months earlier, was with us as a field geologist. Not to mention that she was keen to meet the rest of the gang who had helped to ensure she survived several hours of severe exposure on the rock face, that fateful day, before she could be helicoptered to Bangor hospital. And bless her, as a thank you she presented Evo with a brass compass in a leather case, with a personal engraving!
My evening was mostly spent making chilli for three of us veterans, and I’m pretty sure I slept well. To be fair, in anticipation of a cold caravan I had brought along my Arctic down sleeping bag, extreme rated to keep me alive at minus 44 degrees Celsius! So I was toasty all night.
After an early start and plentiful porridge (I always make too much, and Evo happily took the excess off my hands) I reminded myself of the weather forecast. We were expecting an hour of persistent drizzle ‘sometime’ during the day. With hindsight, that was way off – foul weather for most of the day. Gotta love those Lakeland weather forecasts!
With my bag prepared, I joined the rest of the crew and listened to the day’s brief. Maps were handed out (ahem… to those of us who had forgotten them!) and either I hadn’t heard the brief properly or nobody mentioned that it we would be micro-naving. I now had a flashback to my official ML course in May led by the legendary Welsh climber and instructor Phil George, when a weakness in my nav-ing had become apparent… Lol.
Alas, it’s been almost two decades since I used 1:50,000 scale maps, so I grudgingly admit to myself that I need practice. I asked for the 1:50,000 even though everybody else would be using 1:25,000 scale maps for the day. The main difference being that the 1:50,000 maps don’t show anything like the level of detail one can see on the ground! So any micro-navigation today would be a bit of a nightmare for me…
Anyway, onto the route…
Starting out from Hartsop (OS LR 90 Grid 406133). Over bridge onto main road and over Cow Bridge. Handrailing Brothers Water past Cora Crag to Hartsop Hall.
My Blind leg using 1:50,000 scale map micro-naving to a footbridge by Dovedale Bridge – A blind leg for the others and a relocate on arrival. Two points of interest: building and fork in river. A short leg even though the footbridge wasn’t shown on the 1:50,000 map. Bad decision taking the single map? Hmmm… I think so!
We started to climb, with Perry now taking the lead. Heading off at a fast but manageable pace up the mountain, we passed Gill Crag to our right and reached a footbridge over Dovedale Beck. Here again the group following were encouraged to point to our new position on their maps using geographical features, boundaries, woodland, crags, becks and the like.
The weather from here on would close in on us, and those not already wearing waterproofs (due to the sweaty climb we had just completed) now donned wet weather gear. Out came the waterproof leggings, jackets and daypack covers as the clag descended and persistent drizzle swept over us.
It was time for somebody else to take a blind leg and the ‘offer’ was thrown out to anybody who wished to accept the challenge. Simon (no, not me), who had also attended the Snowdonia ML course, took up the mantle and volunteered for what would be the last and most challenging lead of the day: to find and lead us to the Priest Hole! A well-hidden, yet not so secret cave, high up in the rocky side of Dove Crag. It has become infamous for two reasons: one, the number of people who have lost their lives climbing down to it from above at Dove Crag; two, its reputation as an amazing spot for wild camping. For us though, it would become a shelter from the elements today. Elements that were becoming really quite tiresome…
Heading past Black Crag, still on Simon’s leg, a difference of opinion emerged on how to reach our destination. From below, the Priest Hole is completely concealed, and after much deliberation, scouring the topography and taking bearings/back bearings yadda yadda the group decided to temporarily split up. Several members of the group and MLs George and Evo hiked around on the path, while IMAs Mark and Stewart agreed to follow the ‘steeper’ off-piste route, which I was happy to try. The pace on the steeper route was quite punishing (serious gradient!) and the weather was becoming worse and windier by the moment. Eventually we all met up back where the path met the rock face… we were no closer to pinning down the elusive Priest Hole.
With everyone together, yet another discussion began on the whereabouts of this cave. More bearings, back bearings and general obs of the area gave an indication of where it should be. Plus which, by now it was lunch time and morale appeared to be diminishing. Only one thing for it… Stop messing about, find the cave, get shelter and eat CHOCOLATE!
Evo, confident as ever on where the cave would be, suggested a quick recce up the steep crag and I volunteered to go with him. Our hike turned into a rocky scramble, but he had calculated well and found the cave immediately. We were totally obscured from our friends and colleagues below! The cave was a real treat to discover, complete with a protective wall and a shelf full of useful bits and pieces left by previous visitors. I’m sure that anyone waking there on a bright summer’s dawn would be greeted by spectacular views!
We stuck our heads out to wave and beckon to the group, and a few opted to clamber up for a sheltered lunch. Others declined the hairy ascent and instead shook open their emergency shelters before climbing inside and sitting down. Unbeknown to us at the top, a couple of our party remained outside the emergency storm shelters (designed precisely for these conditions), and lay on the ground directly exposed to the harsh wind and cold. Eventually a few more group members appeared in the Priest Hole with us, as did two separate pairs of ‘passing’ hikers, including one couple who were going to wild camp in the cave. I could understand why, had it been summertime, but in that weather there were no views to be dazzled by? The man’s partner didn’t appear too impressed, and it transpired that this was one of their first dates… I don’t think the weather alone would be making that cave cold on said Saturday evening!
Once lunch had been eaten and coffee/hot chocolate doled out (good old Evo had brought along his stove!), we made our way back down the treacherous path, choosing a slightly easier route than we’d ascended.
We met the others, and it quickly became apparent that the severe exposure was causing problems: a member’s previous injury was now flaring up badly. One or two MLs needed to take the injured party back down and out of the weather… the nearest shelter being a pub a few miles away! (Lol) Another group member who looked incredibly pale with cold was also keen to head down, so we said our temporary goodbyes once more. The rest of us were not going to forge onwards along the planned route, as there was little point in heading into even worse weather just to turn back. Instead we headed across the valley before reaching Hart Crag (822m) heading NE between Houndshope Cove and Black Crag, possibly only to 650m as we joined ‘Hartsop above How’.
We followed the ridge and seemed to leave the worst of the weather behind as we descended. We passed Blake Brow, then with Holly Crag to the north and the Perch to the south we passed over Buck Stones… Hoggill Brow was next, and by Gale Crag we had descended approximately 150m. With few stops and with the intention of keeping warm we sauntered along the ridge and finally, approximately 1 km beyond Bleaberry Knott reached a stile straddling the boundary wall. It was BOGGY! We all did a map check of our position and made the unanimous decision to deviate again, opting for a steeper descent rather than going the additional km to the end of the ridge.
Going this way was certainly a time saver, but there were several slips on the way down… although thankfully no injuries! The one thing about veterans is they tend not to whinge… who knows how much pain they were really in after taking a tumble?
As we descended further we entered Low Wood before reaching Cow Bridge, our familiar morning start point, and headed straight to the river to rinse our already wet and very muddy boots. Some ventured further into the river than others… Lol.
It was a short walk from Cow Bridge back to the house/hostel and we were surprised to see that the others were not yet back. One or two among us theorised that the absentees might have stopped off at the local hostelry; others were concerned for the well-being of a group out on the mountains, with injuries… Why had they not returned?
Before calling the emergency services (!), the agreed first response was to have someone drive to the pub to see if our comrades were indeed enjoying a pint of ale before returning to our hostel. No prizes for guessing the answer on that one! Indeed, all was well.
Dave and Perry cooked up a good meal for everybody that evening… Some went to the pub once again, others (myself included) opted to stay back, shower and get warm.
It had been another great day out with Adventure Quest and fantastic to finally visit the Priest Hole cave which I had previously heard much about but never sought out for myself!
Simon Duringer is an award-winning blogger, interviewer and author. His own books can be found on Amazon too by clicking any of the following icons…