The Deepdale Round
I have never understood potholing. Why anyone would want to head underground in their wellington boots, in the dark, to squeeze through tight passages filled with water is beyond me.
I’ve visited a couple of show caves in my time and can appreciate the beauty of a delicate stalactite or stalagmite as much as the next person. But I’d still rather be standing on a lofty ridge knowing I can always get back to the car by walking downhill, instead of having to contortion myself from the bowels of the earth.
Given my strong aversion to being underground, you might be surprised to hear me wanting to seek out Priest’s Hole Cave. Although the Ordnance Survey map labels it as such, it’s not really a cave at all. More of an overhang high up in the eastern rock face of Dove Crag. It’s an infamous overnight bivvy spot, offering up excellent views across Dovedale and the eastern fells around Ullswater.
But even if you don’t plan on staying overnight, it’s an adventure in itself looking for the Priest’s Hole on this high-level circuit of Deepdale.
My day begins in the car park at Cow Bridge by Brothers’ Water. I always feel a tinge of sadness at this beautiful spot at the foot of the Kirkstone Pass. It is thought that this small lake was named in honour of two brothers who drowned here in the 18th Century. But it could equally have been taken from the Old Norse for ‘Broad Water’, so perhaps the brothers lived to tell the tale.
The climbing begins immediately, straight up on to the long ridge that will lead me over Hartsop above How and on to Hart Crag. The early start and the cool overnight temperatures mean the ordinarily boggy ground is just the right side of frozen, allowing me to make good progress without sinking into the quagmire.
Today marks a forecasted period of stable weather. With high cloud and excellent air clarity, I am able to see the surrounding fells with ease. Ullswater is awash with blues and pinks and purples. This bodes well for later in the day as the early morning haze burns off.
The Priest’s Hole Cave
As I gain height along the ridge, I get my first sighting of the Priest’s Hole. Appearing as a large black spot on the otherwise grey and green crags, it looks impossibly cut off for all but seasoned rock climbers.
After summiting Hartsop above How, I proceed along the ridge until the ground steepens beneath the eastern ridge of Hart Crag. I leave the ridge here, descending into Houndshope Cove.
From this point, there’s nothing to suggest any breach in the crag’s defences. There’s no path as such but if you’ve done your homework and know where to look, it’s possible to negotiate safe passage to the Priest’s Hole. In the spirit of preserving the secrecy of these special places, I’m not going to provide instructions on how to reach the cave. Nor would I encourage anyone other than experienced, competent and careful walkers to go looking for it. Even they should have a head for heights, wait for good weather, work out the route in advance and take things slowly. It’s not one for beginners: the cave is surrounded by extremely dangerous ground and a wrong move here could be costly.
The rock is slippery in parts, with frozen water yet to thaw in any sheltered gaps. As I near my prize, the smell of acrid woodsmoke guides me in. The cave is smaller than expected. And less exposed once you are up there. The walls are black with soot and the rocks are sadly etched with scratches of previous visitors’ names. Maybe they couldn’t find the guest book?
I have the place to myself. I feel privileged to have found this secret hideout, one which isn’t often covered in guide books. Indeed, even Alfred Wainwright doesn’t mention it in his pictorial guides. Whether he never knew about it, or just wanted to keep it a secret, is anybody’s guess.
The views do not disappoint. This would be an incredible place to spend the night. You probably wouldn’t get much sleep, in fear of rolling across the solid rock platform and over the stomach-churning drop just a few feet away. But with the majestic eastern Lake District laid out before you, there’s plenty to distract from that potential fate.
I decide to recreate the iconic ‘silhouetted-walker-staring-nonchalantly-out-of-cave’ shot and carefully perch my camera on a flat-ish spot at the rear of the overhang. Pressing the trigger, I forget ten seconds is ample time to carefully get into position and instead spring up from the floor like a jack-in-a-box. Crack! My noggin quickly becomes acquainted with the low ceiling. With a seriously sore head, I stumble to the entrance just in time to hear the shutter click.
Picture in the bag, I tentatively move my hand to inspect the damage, dreading what injury I might find. Thankfully, there’s no blood. My woolly hat has done a fine job of protecting my swede. But it’s another reminder of why I’d never go potholing.
Before leaving, I do a quick litter pick, which thankfully amounts to nothing more than an orange peel and a receipt for the Co-Op. Being nosey, I have a read through what the litterers bought for their overnight stay. Nothing more interesting than standard barbecue fayre, although I was surprised to see that the perpetrators hail from the neighbouring village to me. I’ll be on the look out for anyone in a down jacket dropping litter.
Exiting the cave more carefully this time, I retrace my steps to the large boulder before climbing up to the saddle between Dove Crag and Hart Crag. I am now on the Fairfield Horseshoe and expect to run into crowds here. But scanning the perimeter of the route, I see no walkers ticking off these eight fine fells.
With the place to myself, I take my time and enjoy a sit – something I often forget to do in the mountains. St Sunday Crag lies across the Deepdale Valley. I reluctantly head on to Fairfield and enjoy majestic views across to the Helvellyn range. The steep cliffs on Dollywaggon Pike. Striding Edge in profile. The giants of the west are a little hazy – Great Gable, the Scafells, the Coniston fells. It’s a magnificent summit for picking out peaks across the National Park.
Long, lofty ridge
After the excitement of the Priest’s Hole, it’s easy to assume that’s your lot for the day. But there’s arguably the best bit to come, as I descend the steep ridge up and over Cofa Pike. As I scramble carefully towards Deepdale Hause, the Grizedale Valley opens up, serving up an ideal vantage point.
There’s a feeling of remoteness on this ridge. I’m standing in the beating heart of the Lake District, and feel small amongst the mountain giants. There isn’t a breath of wind and the silence is enchanting. After months of lockdown denying us the wild places we all need, it feels amazing to be back.
The sound of shouting interrupts my thoughts. Not a panicked cry for help, thank goodness, more the sound of an army drill sergeant putting troops through their paces. I look down towards the source of the sound and can only see what looks to be two men heading up the path towards Grizedale Tarn. I can’t tell if one is encouraging the other as they make progress along the path, or they are simply trying to control an excitable dog. Even here, you can’t always guarantee peace and quiet!
As I reach the summit of St Sunday Crag, I meet my first fellow walker of the day. A pleasant chap, about my age, we start chatting and it turns out he’s a qualified mountain leader. We swap stories about the fells and I think how nice it is to make small talk about a subject I’m passionate about. It’s a world away from the hours I used to spend in a suit pretending to be interested in how busy everyone was.
Losing height now, I divert to the neighbouring summit of Birks, before dropping off-piste for a play in the secluded valley above Glenamara Park. It’s beautifully tranquil here and I take a moment to enjoy the freedom of being away from the main mountain tracks.
My final summit of the day is Arnison Crag. A steep climb back out of the valley on to the ridge then takes me past a number of ring contours on the map before a mini scramble to the summit. I head down to Patterdale and enjoy a long stride out along the quiet roads back to the car.
Sitting in my camping chair at Cow Bridge, I make a brew alongside Goldrill Beck and read my book. I’m in no rush to hit the road just yet. I wile away the next hour as my head throbs – a memento from the closest experience I ever want to have to potholing.
Highs and Lowdown
Start / Finish: Car park at Cow Bridge for Brothers’ Water.
Distance: 16.3 km
Wainwright count: 6
Navigation: You’ll need good navigation skills and to have done your homework to locate the Priest’s Hole. The summit of Fairfield is notoriously confusing in mist and care is needed to locate the exit to Cofa Pike.
Terrain: Could be boggy around Hartsop above How. The scramble to Priest’s Hole is rocky and exposed. The descent over Cofa Pike requires care. Some pathless sections.
Facilities: Plenty of options in nearby Glenridding. The Brothers’ Water car park at Cow Bridge is close to Sykeside Campsite.
*These routes and descriptions are only ever intended to be a personal record of my adventures, which may inspire your own. Hillwalking involves a degree of risk, so please make sure you are properly equipped and prepared if you choose to follow them.