When the Government announced they were relaxing the Covid rules for 5 days over Christmas I made plans to squeeze as much activity as possible into those 5 days. Two and a half days with my family and one day driving my mum home on the 27th. That left the 23rd and half of the 24th for a possible trip to the Lakes, Ennerdale or Upper Eskdale, all perfectly legal.
As has been proved all too often in 2020, the best laid plans often come to nothing and our 5 days of freedom were soon reduced to one. No real surprise there and in the long run it doesn’t really matter, but my plans had to change. I know plenty of people who continue to go to the Lakes from the North East and I know that me wild camping alone in a remote location would pose very little risk to anyone, but I am burdened by a conscience and an inability to lie, so I planned a night out under the stars in Teesdale instead.
The wildest place I could think of was Meldon Hill near Cow Green Reservoir, isolated open access land where I’m yet to ever meet anyone, so perfect for a camp out. I’d bought myself a bivvy bag for Christmas and was keen to try it out but I knew I’d need some shelter from the wind in a grouse butt or shake hole and I also didn’t want it to rain too much. I studied the weather forecast carefully. It rained most of the day on the 23rd but was forecast to be dry from 10pm onwards and for most of the 24th apart from the odd snow shower. It was going to be cold with a strong northerly wind, but I could cope with that if I found shelter.
At 10pm I was at Cow Green Reservoir. The plan was to walk for an hour or two up Meldon Hill and check out an area of grouse butts and shake holes I had seen on the map. If at any point I was too cold or if I decided the whole thing was a bad idea I would turn round and sleep in the car. I had a headtorch and spare battery, maps, warm clothes and waterproofs, winter sleeping bag, stove, mat, bivvy bag and food.I also had my phone and battery pack but knew I would get no reception until tomorrow. Tonight I was on my own.
The rain had stopped, the sky was clearing and the moon shone over the dark expanse of water to my right. I turned off my head torch to save the battery and was guided by the moonlight reflecting in the puddles on the road to the dam. I walked over the dam in the dark, the only noise being the wind and the sound of the waves hitting the dam wall below me. It was magic.
I found the grouse butts easily. They were fairly new with a flat wooden floor maybe 5 foot square and wooden sides maybe 4 foot high. They were dug a foot or so into the ground with a large step down into them. Perfect for a bivvy. I was out of the wind and once my groundsheet was down I had a dry, flat surface to lie on. It was cold and I didn’t want to get any colder, so I took off my boots and waterproofs, got into my sleeping bag and using my rucksack as a pillow watched the stars and listened to the wind, feeling warm, dry and very content.
I woke at 6am having had the best night sleep I’d had for weeks. It was a bit chilly and I was surprised to see snow on my bivvy bag and a thick layer of ice on the step of the grouse butt. No sign of dawn, but I wanted to get moving and I got my stove out for a cup of tea. The gas cylinder was too cold to work and too late I realised that I should have slept with it inside my sleeping bag. I put it next to my warm body and went back to sleep for half an hour until finally the stove fired into life and I got my breakfast of tea and muesli.
By 7am I was on my way, a faint glow appearing at last in the sky to the east. The sky was still clear and the stars shone, but the wind was icy and I was glad of my insulated jacket as I continued up Meldon Hill. It was hard going. The tracks are indistinct and boggy at the best of times but today I had soft snow to hide the paths and sap my energy, and it was still dark. Eventually dawn broke and the hills were covered with a cold blue light. It had snowed a lot higher up and the last kilometre was hard work against a strengthening northerly wind but eventually I reached the top.
No view from the top though as the cloud rolled in, and I took a compass bearing to follow on the descent towards High Cup Nick. It had started to snow again as I made my way through the peat hags and heather, falling in holes concealed by soft snow. Then to my surprise a quad bike appeared out of the mist. The driver saw me, headed in my direction and stopped to talk. I’m not sure which of us was more surprised to see someone else out on the fell so early in the morning in a snowstorm. He was the farmer from Birkdale, the farm lower down on the Pennine Way, and he was looking for foxes. He asked me where I was going and where I had been. I told him. “You must have had an early start” he said. Being unable to lie I told him I’d spent the night on the fell. “You know you’re not supposed to do that” he said. In the snow and the wind I had completely forgotten about Covid and cursed myself for being so honest. But he wasn’t bothered about the Covid rules. “Under the CROW Act you don’t have a right to spend the night on the fell” he said. This was surreal, stood in a blizzard in the middle of nowhere debating the CROW Act. I used my best diplomacy to explain that I wasn’t doing any harm, thinking I’d better keep my mouth shut about sleeping in one of his grouse butts. After a while he relaxed and realised that I wasn’t going to light fires or drop litter and said he was happy for me to be there and wished me well. He disappeared into the snow storm and I continued on my compass bearing, reflecting on the strange encounter.
My compass bearing brought me out at the footbridge over Maize Beck which I crossed and then headed for High Cup Nick. The wind worsened but at least for now it was at my back. The clouds parted and there was High Cup Nick, but it was too cold to stop for long and I turned and headed eastwards, back to Teesdale, battling against an arctic wind.
I sat in a shake hole out of the wind and had an early lunch. By the time I reached the second footbridge back over Maize Beck the wind had died down and the sun had come out. It was suddenly a beautiful winters day in the North Pennines, snowy hills against a clear blue sky, and I was soon too warm in my multiple layers of thermals and fleeces.
I followed the Pennine Way back to Cow Green, through Birkdale Farm but no sign of the farmer. I hadn’t seen anyone else all day. Below the dam I spotted a family on the other side of the river, two collie dogs running round, a tall thin man, a brightly dressed woman, a girl and a younger boy. Not many families like that in Teesdale and I knew immediately it was my friends Kirsty and John with Esme and Seth and their dogs, Rowan and Bo. I shouted to them over the noise of the river and waved. It was a complete coincidence that we had met but it was a very welcome way to return to civilisation.