Country Walking writer Nick Hallissey switches off his iPhone and heads deep into the wild – and off the grid…
Only connect. It’s the name of a BBC panel game, which got it from a line in Howard’s End. But wherever it came from, for most people in the western hemisphere, those two words sum up what modern life is all about.
Connect. Link. Share. Like. Post. Tweet. Retweet. At every moment of every day, we’re urged to consume or create digitally.
Let’s not be Luddite about this: connection is a good thing. It’s easier to stay in touch. Easier to find news, opinions, facts, figures, directions and distractions; to express outrage, go shopping, or find a new home. But sometimes – just sometimes – a self-imposed unplugging is just what we need.
Countless academic studies have looked into this. They say relationships improve when partners put down their phones and give each other their full attention for an evening. They say our creativity improves when we switch off, because we allow our thought processes to reach a definite conclusion, rather than being distracted by the next email ping.
So I decided to take Country Walking off the grid: to find somewhere that phone signal and wi-fi simply cannot reach, and stay there for 24 hours. Nothing digital at all. Not even GPS.
Ironically, my first stop had to be digital: I went to the OpenSignal mobile phone coverage map (www.opensignal.com). Normally used by those who want to see which network best covers their area, my purpose was to look for the uncoloured bits, where no provider can offer anything at all.
The Lake District, it turns out, is nicely patchy. Most silent of all are the fells north of Keswick – which just happen to be home to an accommodation venue which positively revels in its lack of connection: Skiddaw House hostel.
Nestling on the northern flank of mighty Skiddaw, in a wilderness known somewhat prosaically as ‘Back o’ Skidda’, this grey-walled former shooting lodge is today the only habitable structure between the hamlet of Applethwaite, just north of Keswick, and that of Fellside, eight miles to the north.
This, then, is the centrepoint of our digital detox weekender; a trip that is not only thoroughly disconnected, it’s also stunning.
DAY 1: INTO THE WILD
It all begins in civilisation, at the old Keswick railway station. The closure of the Cockermouth, Keswick and Penrith Railway in 1972 may have robbed the town of a lifeline, but its conversion into a walking trail has at least offset the damage a little.
The line now offers a lovely low-level walk through the wooded gorge of the river Greta. Where a bricked-up tunnel blocks the way, the footpath swings out, high above the river, on a beautifully crafted boardwalk.
So far, so flat. But soon it’s time to turn for the hills. A leisurely path climbs the whaleback of little Latrigg, the grassy guard-dog of the Skiddaw range. The view from the gentle promenade on Latrigg’s summit is perhaps one of the finest in the Lakes: a grand panorama across Derwent Water, with a chaotic jumble of mountains to the west: Cat Bells, Causey Pike, Grisedale Pike, Barrow. And beneath me, the white-grey sprawl of Keswick.
This is the moment to say adios to civilisation. My phone signal is already fritzing, so I switch it off. There. Disconnected.
And on towards Skiddaw. First I pass the Gale Road car park, starting point for the commonest and easiest ascent of Skiddaw. But today isn’t about doing the common and easy thing, so instead I skirt around the fat flank of Lonscale Fell towards Glenderaterra Beck, and the enormous V-shaped chasm that separates the Skiddaw massif from its next-door neighbour, Blencathra.
The traverse of this chasm is thrilling; a person-width path running beneath the beetling Lonscale Crags, with the mountain simply tumbling away to the right. My finger twitches near the pocket where my phone would normally be. This is where I’d normally be taking a picture and posting it on Facebook. Not today.
The canyon is a gateway into the wilderness of Back o’ Skidda. Emerging into this vast bowl, what’s immediately shocking is the two-faced duality of Skiddaw and Blencathra. From the south (or ‘front’) they are two of the most massive and recognisable mountains in the country. From the back, they are just moors: sweeping, grass-covered bulks with almost nothing to distinguish them from the yellowy mounds behind them. They don’t even seem that high, due to the confusing sight-lines and the fact that my path, which seems to be crossing a level plateau, has already reached 400m.
Curving around the ridge of Burnt Horse (which sounds like it should be in Wyoming or something), I’m now making directly for the isolated copse which hides Skiddaw House. With every step, the sense of wildness deepens. The sky gets bigger. The lonely fells of Great Calva and Knott look almost surprised to have company.
And all at once I’m letting myself into Skiddaw House, at the heart of this strange hinterland, hidden round the back of a mountain. I quickly check my phone, and happily find it dead as a dodo. With a grin, I head inside.
A QUIET NIGHT IN
“You’ve never played darts? Seriously?”
Photographer Tom is gobsmacked when I drop my little bombshell in the Skiddaw House common room. You’ll find every known species of board game in the sideboard, but it’s the dartboard that has caught Tom’s eye, and he wants a game.
It’s true, though: thanks to Bullseye, I can rustle up a bad Jim Bowen impression as well as the next man, but actual gameplay? Let’s just say I won’t be winning Bully’s Special Prize any time soon. So it proves when Tom undertakes to teach me. Turns out I’m a whizz at losing darts behind the sideboard. This will take practice.
But there’s more than just the gaming. There are seven other people staying over the same night, and when you’re united by the dream of escape that has brought you here, you’ve got plenty to talk about. Great walks, terrible walks, amusingly complicated walks. Where you came from, where you’re going (geographically and philosophically).
Curiously, we barely talk about anything that we might engage with digitally: no football, no telly; nothing about celebrities or politics. Just what’s around us, and what’s most important to us. Dinner is tinned chilli and rice, sold to us from the pantry by managers Martin and Marie-Pierre, with a couple of Lakeland ales as amuse-bouches.
Afterwards, I read; something I normally only do in the minutes before zonking out in bed. When I actually give it wakeful attention in early evening, I find I’m massively more invested in the experience of reading. It helps that it’s a novel from the Cumbrian Cthulhu series, in which monsters from the nightmares of HP Lovecraft turn up in the wilder parts of the Lake District. Brrr.
When it’s bedtime, sleep is instant. No sneaky check of the phone, no telly; just into the dorm, throw on the duvet-and-pillow cover, and sleep. Even the thought of a tentacled Cthulhu lurking outside my window can’t stop the sleep.
DAY 2: OVER THE TOP
Day 2 is a full-on mountain walk. Skiddaw is the elephant in the room, and it would be rude to ignore it. From this side it might look unusual, but it’s still a magnificent mountain, and more pragmatically, it is now sitting directly between me and Keswick. But it’s by no means a quick return: I want to make my digital detox last. So I strike out north-west from Skiddaw House, and head deeper into the wild.
The silence and bigness of it all is breathtaking. At the waterfalls of Whitewater Dash, I reach a porthole back to civilisation. Far ahead and below, through a gap in the hills, I can see fields and farmland. It’s a genuine shock, after 20 hours in the wild. But I’m not making for them. Instead I turn left, where the long, steady slog up Birkett Edge carries me to Skiddaw’s rear outlier, Bakestall.
It gets pretty stunning higher up, as the cliffs of Dead Crags rise up across a folded coomb. Some walkers sneer at the Skiddaw range, claiming it lacks drama. Dead Crags beg to differ.
Now rising ahead, Skiddaw suddenly transforms from a bulky moor into a shapely mountain. I’m climbing a long scarp leading to the summit ridge, which is a stone runway topped by no fewer than four lofty peaks. The second of them, High Man, is the true 931m (3,054ft) summit, as given away by a trig point and cairn.
Carrying on along the runway, Borrowdale begins to creep back onto the horizon. Now I get to plunge down the exhilarating track that leads down the western flank of the summit ridge. It’s a steep, stony chute with an awesome sense of scale, thanks to the great chasm of Southerndale that lies between me and Longside Edge.
From the tarn at Carlside Col, the descent is a delight: an amble down the heathery slopes of White Stones, direct to the hamlet of Millbeck at the foot of the mountain. The view ahead is majestic: a head-on study of the Vale of Keswick, with Borrowdale stretching away beyond.
The final stretch, from Millbeck back to Keswick, is a gentle traverse of field-paths before the town begins to grow around me. From Dead Crags to urban sprawl in a mere two hours.
And bip, I’m back in the digital world. I switch on my phone and it pings furiously with texts, Tweets, Facebook posts and emails. I’m connected again, and the world is demanding my attention.
Thankfully though, I’m truly blissed out: the adventure has done enough to relax my mind to the point that these things just don’t matter as much as they might have done two days ago.
How precious has that time been? I’ve lived free of the digital yoke; had a chance to clear my mind. Try it yourself and I’ll wager you will come up with new ideas, make resolutions that will stick, and read something you might never have given time to before. You’ll cook in a community, eat with strangers and share stories that help you remember who you really are. If you try it with a partner or relative, you might rediscover the magic behind your relationship. You might even play darts really badly.
Whatever happens on your digital detox, don’t share it. Don’t post it or Tweet it. Just keep it to yourself, because a trip like this is about you and the landscape. It’s you, calmly socking it to a world that insists we stay digital, digital, digital all the time.
Or to put it another way: only disconnect.
WORDS: NICK HALLISSEY
THIS FEATURE ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN COUNTRY WALKING MAGAZINE