What happens when you take mountain-loving strangers, install them in a fantastic location at the foot of one of the Lake District’s most popular mountains, chuck in an award winning film maker, record breaking mountaineer, and experts in gear, navigation and wildlife, and then stir things up with a pub quiz, a game or two of ping-pong, a couple of pop-up tents, and three barrels of local beer? Trail decided to find out…
Friday 20th October
Next week is half-term. Some schools in the south-east have broken up today. What has this got to do with the Trail weekend at The Blencathra centre in the Lake District? Nothing really, except that the A1 and the A66 are crammed full of cars going nowhere very quickly, and ‘popping in’ to a motorway services to pick up some lunch feels more like battling the All Blacks in a game of one-on-fifteen. But the blood pressure begins to reduce as soon as the fells of Lakeland are in sight, and any remnants of road rage are extinguished entirely upon stepping out of the car at Blencathra Field Studies Centre. Formerly a sanatorium, this amazing building sits high on the slopes of Blencathra – ‘The People’s Mountain’ – and the views accorded to the south and into the heart of the fells are incredible. Indeed, the head of the centre Tim Foster proudly tells all that his office window provides the best view of any desk in the country. Having seen his office, he may well be right.
The accommodation options for the weekend include staying in the centre itself, camper-vanning in the car-park, or camping in the grounds. Hurricane Ophelia had blown through the previous week, loosening some of the roof tiles on the main house, and Storm Brian was threatening to rattle things this weekend. But a few brave souls have still opted to camp out in front of the buildings, taking full advantage of the magnificent vista they’ll wake up to each morning. A few other participants are milling around the centre, some looking a little nervous as to what the weekend might have in store. Several people are here on their own. That’s often the case with these sorts of events. On arrival everybody is given a welcome pack, information about dinner (all food is included in the prices for the weekend), and after the evening meal, the Blencathra Centre’s Tim Foster and Trail officially welcome everybody to the weekend. But what we really want is for people to get to know each other.
To help this happen a ‘pub-quiz’ is laid on in the centre’s bar, with participants encouraged to get into teams with complete strangers. Some of Team Trail are enrolled too, and there are few people as completely strange as them… We needn’t have worried. Assisted by the arrival of record breaking Himalayan mountaineer, real ale enthusiast and all-round life and sole of a party Alan Hinkes, conversation is already flowing as easily as the beer before the quiz has even begun. The quiz goes down well, although the dastardly difficult questions about mountain heritage and Lake District links are met with less enthusiasm than the round on kids’ TV shows. Who knew that mountain enthusiasts would know so much about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?
Also joining us for the weekend is award winning film maker Terry Abraham, the creator of the ‘Life of a mountain…’ series and his latest project, a documentary about Alan Hinkes. After the quiz Terry gives a presentation about his film making, showing us various clips from his films along with details of how he captured the shots and the considerable planning and effort that went in to each one. It’s an insightful hour that demonstrates that for Terry, the fells aren’t just a way to make a living but a deeply held passion. After Terry’s talk, there’s time for a few more beers (which empties the first 72-pint barrel of the weekend), a game of table tennis for those still brimming with energy, before we all turn in for the night to recharge for tomorrow’s activities.
Saturday 21st October
The forecast is… not ideal. Winds are high, and there’s a strong chance of rain. Mountain leaders from the centre’s staff get together with Alan Hinkes and Trail over breakfast to discuss options. Plans to separate into groups with one heading up Sharp Edge are abandoned (not a sensible idea in 40mph winds). Instead, we opt to take one group up to the summit of Blencathra from Scales village via Scales Tarn and Scales Fell (we ‘weighed’ up the options carefully), with the ability to change the plan depending how the weather pans out. This is put to the participants and they are happy, every single one of them deciding to brave the weather rather than staying at the centre for tea and cake. They’re a hardy bunch.
We’re minibussed to Scales, from where we walk up to Scales Tarn, stopping along the way to have various flora and fauna pointed out to us by Lakeland poet and nature enthusiast Phil Houghton. The wind is blustery, and the group strings out to accommodate the various paces of the 40-odd walkers. But with at least 3 mountain leaders, 1 British Mountain Guide, and two navigation experts and former mountain rescue team members (Paul and Ady from the Ultimate Navigation School have joined us), it’s a well-managed (and exceedingly well behaved) group that eventually arrives at the relatively sheltered Scales Tarn to break for lunch as a single unit. The mood is good and spirits are high – nobody looks like they’re regretting their decision to come out on the hills. And why would they? The weather might not be glorious, but the views and company are, even if a few of us are eyeing Sharp Edge and wishing it had been just a little less breezy today.
At the summit, it’s clear that avoiding Sharp Edge was a good idea. But although the wind is out in force, the rain is yet to make an appearance, and spectacular views emerge the cloud is whipped away. We all gather for a group photo, selfies and a chat about plans. With the wind blowing from the edges, rather than toward them, we all opt to continue along Blencathra’s summit ridge. It’s a great choice. The air is surprisingly clear, and the walk back to the centre via Blease Fell is buffeting, a little slippery underfoot in places (there will be several pairs of mud smeared waterproofs in the drying room this afternoon), but refreshing and exhilarating.
After showers, teas and coffees, it’s time for a lesson in getting in lost. Or rather, why it happens, how to avoid it, and what to do if you are. The Ultimate Navigation School provide tips, techniques, and some comedy moments (Paul using his post-pub nocturnal toilet trips ad an example of low vis navigation is particularly amusing). The group listen, and then gather around maps to try some of the ideas for themselves, but it’s when they’re next out on the hill that they’ll really make the most of them.
During the rest of the afternoon there’s a little free time, but a couple of attractions in the games room are proving popular. The ‘guess the weight of the rucksack’ game is self-explanatory and offers the winning weight guestimator the chance to win the pack and its contents.
The ‘Pop-up Tent Challenge’ is a little more high adrenalin. Participants are timed to see how quickly they can unpack, erect, then refold and put away a pop-up tent – those springy blighters notorious for being a nightmare to collapse and often seen strewn in large numbers across festival campsites. Trail’s Ben sets a storming time of 1 minute. Other members of Team Trail do less well. Editor Simon Ingram particularly let the side down. But it’s competitor Rebecca who records the fastest time (and displays a vicious competitive streak) with a frankly astounding and seemingly unbeatable time of just 53 seconds. During the celebrations, the second 72-pint barrel of ale is emptied.
After dinner (another magnificent feast from the centre’s catering staff) it’s time for tonight’s headline act. ‘Alan Hinkes – The first Briton to climb the world’s highest mountains’ is Terry Abraham’s latest film, seeking to tell the wider world about Alan’s achievements and offer an insight into the man behind the mountains. The movie only had its premiere at the Reghed Centre the week before, so we’re lucky to be watching it so soon after its release, and honoured to be able to do so in the presence of the film maker and the documentay's subject. Both Terry and Alan are on hand to answer questions afterwards, and for those looking to find out more about his Himalayan achievements, Alan’s book is also on sale. With a less demanding morning to follow, it’s a later night tonight. A significant dent is made into the third barrel of ale, a few more people try their hand at the ‘Pop-up Tent Challenge’ (nobody comes close to Rebecca’s time), but eventually we call it a night to prepare for Sunday’s mammoth gear sale.
Sunday 22nd October
First up after breakfast, John Owens from the George Fisher outdoor gear store in Keswick presents a guide to boot fitting, the common foot problems that walkers can experience, and how to combat them with the right choice of boot and insoles. John does an excellent job of cramming his detailed information in to the hour before the gear sale kicks off, but remains on hand to offer boot and gear advice throughout.
The winners of the quiz are rewarded with a 5-minute head-start, giving them the opportunity to browse the bargains and try on the kit before the hordes descend. Then, the weekend attendees are admitted, before members of the general public half an hour later. A huge amount of gear is shifted, with shoppers picking up great kit at incredible prices. Thanks must go to Berghaus for providing several brand new items of last season’s clothing to be sold off at discount prices. An impressive £3600 is raised in total, with all money raised going to Mountain Rescue, and there’s still some gear left over for next time…
Then, with the dust of the sale settling, it’s time to say our goodbyes and bring the weekend to the close. Some head straight off in cars, some sling on packs and head into the hills, some accept lifts to the train station, while others still loiter a little longer and eek out the weekend over tea and cakes at the pop-up café, browsing the prints of Terry’s photographs and paintings by Sue Foster, Tim’s wife and a talented artist. It’s been an amazing weekend: partly because of the venue (huge thanks to FSC Blencathra for hosting), partly because of the activities, speakers and special guest (and thanks to Terry, Alan, Phil, John, and the Ultimate Navigation School), but most of all because of the spirit and enthusiasm of everybody that came. Hopefully many new friendships have been forged. Which just leaves one thing…
Same again next year?
The Trail weekend will be taking place again in 2018 over the weekend of Friday 19th to Sunday 21st October – woohoo! Once more there will be a rich mix of walks, presentations, gear, and a whole lot of fun. Who knows, maybe you could beat the one to break the Pop-up Tent Challenge record? A full itinerary and details of special guests and activities will be provided as they’re confirmed, but we can promise you this – a great weekend spent with like-minded people in an amazing location, and everything else is a bonus! We hope to see you there!
Costs for 2018’s Trail weekend are as follows:
- In-house accommodation including breakfast, evening meals and pack-up lunch:
£125 per person (reduced to £100 for attendees of the 2017 event)
- Camping and camper-vanning including breakfast, evening meals and pack-up lunch:
£75 per person
- Children (under 16) camping or in-house:
To book your places call 01768 779601 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can find more information here.