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Ancient Feet: 42 - Black Sail Hut

...The warden had agreed to them sleeping on the floor of the common room and we now had another five sets of wet clothes and boots to cope with, let alone the wet sleeping bags and enormous backpacks. But of most significance was the extra five bodies in the small room. Five seventeen year old youths take up a lot of space, particularly when they are all seven feet tall! Have you noticed that teenage boys these days are enormous? They seem to come in two varieties. Either they are built like poles so I half expect to see a belisha beacon on the top, or they are extremely broad with no necks...

Alan Nolan and his Coast-to-Coast walking mates stay in a remote hostel.

To purchase a copy of Ancient Feet visit

Signed copies of the book are available from Alan http://apn.thelea@yahoo.co.uk

We spent that night at the Buttermere Youth Hostel where we also had a dormitory to ourselves and the facilities were good. After the two nights at the Keswick and Buttermere hostels, I was beginning to warm to the idea of hostelling (well, almost). Perhaps it was just the relief after the abject misery of my first two nights in hostels.

The next two nights were to be spent at Black Sail Hut and my colleagues were really looking forward to what they regarded as the highlight of the tour. The very fact that this was the only hostel where we were to spend two nights is testimony to their regard for the place. Black Sail Hut is a hostel which is talked of with great affection by youth hostellers who seem to have a great need to suffer deprivation and hardship, and they are available in bucketloads at Black Sail. Apart from the fact that it is little more than a remote hut out on the fells, several miles from the nearest road, with absolutely no home comforts, there is no alcohol either which, for Tom and Andy, seemed to be the only drawback.

'Last time I was over there, I hid two cans of beer in a drystone wall behind the hostel and I'm going to sell one of them to the highest bidder,' said Tom, when the subject of the absence of alcohol was raised,'I should get at least £10.'

'That's alright,' said Andy 'I'll have the other.'

After walking from Buttermere over Red Pike, High Stile and High Crag, Tom and I reached Black Sail at about four o'clock and we were just in time as it began to rain just at that time. Paul was there already, having walked on his own that day. Whilst we were having breakfast that morning, he had announced that he was suffering from terrible pain in his shin and, indeed, he could barely walk. As a consequence, he said he would take the shortest and lowest route to Black Sail in the hope that he would be fit for the following day. Andy was still out on the fells somewhere, now getting very wet as the rain teemed down.

If I had thought that the Thirlmere hostel was basic, I soon learned my mistake. Black Sail is a stone-built refuge on the open fell, admittedly in a beautiful setting, but miles from anywhere. Viewed from the front, there are three doors, those on the right and left being to the men's and women's dormitories respectively. The middle door is to the common room (some might say so common that it should be known as the 'fuckin' common room') which also serves as the dining room. There are no connecting doors so it follows that access from the dormitories to the dining room involves going outside. The single toilet is situated on the left side of the building so, again, use of this facility involves going outside and round the side of the building. Apparently, there is a shower but this is at the back of the building and entails an even longer expedition round the building and, with a full house of twenty people at the hostel, it is hardly worth the effort of repeated journeys to check whether it is free.

Until relatively recently, there was no electricity supply at Black Sail but, to the chagrin of traditional hostellers who reject any form of comfort, it does now have its own power generator. However, the power supply does not extend to the men's dormitory which is illuminated by gas light and the washing facilities consist of a large bowl and a ewer of cold water.

To cap it all, there are understandable problems about emptying the septic tank, what with the hostel being so inaccessible. As a result, there is a sign in the toilet requesting prudent flushing with guidelines in verse (not attributable to the great Lakes poet, William Wordsworth):
If it's brown, flush it down If it's yellow, leave it to mellow.

Now do you begin to understand my dislike of hostelling? Of course, I realise that all the regular hostellers who have not yet visited Black Sail will be salivating after reading this and rushing to their phones and computers to make a booking.

The men's dormitory houses eight bunks and both the men's and women's dormitories were full that night. Although Paul was in obvious discomfort and had endured a very long limp from Buttermere that day, he was not one to complain. However, Andy was a different matter. When he arrived, soaking wet, it became clear that any pain Paul could endure was nothing more than a flea bite in comparison to his suffering. His problem on this occasion was that his back was giving him gyp, although he hoped that he would be able to sleep through the pain.

'Can someone pull my boots off for me?' he asked, as he sat on the edge of his bunk with one leg raised, waiting for assistance.

'Piss off, Andy.'

Having claimed our bunks, we made our way to the common room, getting a good soaking en route as the rain continued to pelt down. The common room was not only full of people, but of drying clothes which hung from rails which ¦were hauled down using a pulley system every time a new arrival appeared, allowing more wet clothes to be hauled up towards the ceiling. Wet boots made full use of the ceiling beams, looking like a coconut shy at a fairground. At least there was a roaring fire and the smell of baking bread was just wonderful, but with all the drying clothes and nearly twenty people in the room, it did become very hot and steamy. The warden was disturbed from his task of preparing dinner when 'the man with the posh voice' poked his head round the door.

'Do you by any chance have a bunk available for the night? It is not imperative as I am more than happy to camp if you are full.'

The warden explained that there was still one bunk left and the man with the posh voice could have it, with pleasure.

'Are you sure it's no bother? I'm quite happy to camp.'

Who did he think he was kidding? Quite happy to camp? It was sluicing it down outside. Nobody in their right mind would be 'happy to camp'.

Reassured that it was no trouble, he made his way to the dormitory returning a few minutes later to add his wet clothes to the rack and his wet boots to the beam. He must be loony, I thought, to even consider camping in this weather but, he must be round the twist to stay in Black Sail Hut, particularly as he must have been six foot six and his feet would protrude well beyond the end of his bunk. We asked how far he had travelled and his ultimate destination.

'I'm doing the Coast to Coast Walk. I travelled down from London by rail to St. Bees yesterday, walked a few miles and camped last night and walked on from there today. I was hoping to stay here tonight as I have heard it is one of the best hostels, but I didn't have time to book in advance. You see, a window of opportunity arose unexpectedly and I decided to utilise it to fulfil an ambition of mine to do the C to C. I work in the City and have been given garden leave, so it is an ideal opportunity.'

Here was a man trying desperately to dispel the myth of the soft southern Jessie. But failing. Travelled 'down' from London? Who, but a posh southerner, would believe that travelling from south to north is 'down'?
'Window of opportunity'? 'Garden leave'? He'd been sacked!

'Could I have a word with you please, Rupert? You've been with us for twelve years now, haven't you, Rupie? Twelve good years, but this is a young man's business and things change, don't you know? We're in a new paradigm and we need young blood to carry the business forward. I'm sure you'll find a position better suited to the qualities that you bring to the party and, meanwhile, I'm going to suggest you take twelve months garden leave. We'll pay you of course, in accordance with your twelve month notice period and we're prepared to consider a 'bonus' payment of, shall we say, half a mill in recognition of your loyal service, subject to certain conditions that the legal boys will tie up later.'

Had he worked in the north, the parting of the ways may have been more blunt.

'Come into my office now, Rupert me old son. We pay you a lot of brass for doing what you do and, for the last year or two, you've not been earning it. In fact, you've been fucking useless. My cocker spaniel could've done better. Unfortunately, we made the mistake of giving you a twelve month notice period and we'll honour that, but I don't want you pissing about in the office for the next twelve months, so clear your desk and bugger off. Oh, and Head Office don't want you stirring the shit with a claim for wrongful dismissal, so they'll give you a shedload of cash to keep your mouth shut.'

Well, at least he'll be able to afford the shed to store the cash and keep an eye on it whilst he's doing all that gardening. Anyway, finding himself with nothing to do (other than garden), he had chosen to use some of his now less valuable time walking 'up north'.

Once we got to know him a little better, we found he was good company, although he was one of those who sounded as though he had swallowed the OS map.

'I found a super route along Little Mickle Bottom and then up High Bessie Beck, and then over Big Bore Pike and down Great Yawn Ghyll.'Yes, all very interesting.

It continued to rain so heavily that a wetsuit was needed even to venture out to the toilet. As we waited for dinner, the door opened to reveal a group of young men looking very sorry for themselves in the pouring rain. They were hoping for shelter, but the warden had to tell them that the hostel was full. Like the man with the posh voice, they were supposed to be camping but it was so cold and wet that they really would have preferred the 'comfort' of the hostel. It must have been grim outside then!

The warden went out to show them where they could pitch their tents, returning a few minutes later to serve dinner. He was a bit of a weird character but served up a terrific meal. The home made soup was presented in large jugs and he left us in no doubt that we would not get our main course until all the soup was gone. The good food and the warmth generated by all those bodies in a confined space, together with the hubbub of conversation, made me forget I was at a youth hostel. For a moment anyway. As we finished our meal, the door opened and the warden came in with five bedraggled young men. This was the same group who had asked for bunks earlier and conditions outside had deteriorated so much that their tents had blown down and even their sleeping bags were now sodden. In these extreme circumstances, the hostel probably was marginally more comfortable. They were doing the Duke of Edinburgh Award so were supposed to camp, but they were so downhearted they had decided to give up and try again another time.

The warden had agreed to them sleeping on the floor of the common room and we now had another five sets of wet clothes and boots to cope with, let alone the wet sleeping bags and enormous backpacks. But of most significance was the extra five bodies in the small room. Five seventeen year old youths take up a lot of space, particularly when they are all seven feet tall! Have you noticed that teenage boys these days are enormous? They seem to come in two varieties. Either they are built like poles so I half expect to see a belisha beacon on the top, or they are extremely broad with no necks. It's as though their bodies grow so quickly that they reach their heads before their necks have had time to react. Still, perhaps this is a good thing as, if they had necks as well, they could be nine feet tall.
With the room so packed, we decided to call it a day and went to our bunks. I confess that I made a decision to be a dirty pig and passed up on the opportunity to utilise the jug and ewer and, as I lay on my bunk watching the dim, flickering light from the gas lamp reflecting on the water jug, I wondered whether this was what it was like in the Victorian workhouses, described so often by Dickens.

The gentleman with the posh voice, who hereafter shall be known as Rupert Trumbleweed, stooped as he entered the room, his high domed forehead avoiding contact with the doorframe by the merest whisker.
'Felicitations to all' he boomed cheerily, the words resonating around the dimly-lit, incommodious room as his close-set eyes examined the occupants with whom he would be sharing the scant facilities in this remote establishment.

It was the best of tim... Oops, must have been dropping off to

The rain continued throughout the night which presented a problem for anyone wanting a pee. It was raining so heavily that just standing outside was not an option, but there was no light in the toilet so that running round there would not only result in another drenching, but also there was no guarantee of hitting the right spot, as it were. Why on earth do hostellers think this is such a wonderful place? Yet it is almost like the Bethlehem of the youth hostelling world, with the innkeeper (sorry, warden) turning travellers away. 'No room at the hostel' is the cry. I almost expected the warden to spread straw across the dormitory floor and allow another twenty or so weary wanderers to rest their heads.

Before morning, I needed a pee but could hear the rain continuing to pour down and could not bring myself to venture outside, so had to hold on until it was time to get up. As I lay in my bunk hoping I would be able to last until morning, drifting in and out of sleep, my mind wandered back to primary school days when, if taken short during a lesson, the afflicted boy (or girl) had to put up a hand to attract the teacher's attention and hope that it would not be long before the teacher decided to notice. With luck, if the teacher was in a good mood, relief would come quickly. On the other hand, if four classmates had already been excused during the same lesson, the teacher's gaze might never fall on the desperate, fidgeting child. Surely the teacher should realise that the later in a lesson a child wanted to go, the more pressing the need of the child was likely to be. If my childhood experiences are anything to go by, teachers minds do not work like that!
There was a set protocol at my school which involved using the prescribed words and any error resulted in permission being refused.

'Please may I go to the toilet?' were the passwords to blessed relief and any variation resulted in further discomfort for as long as teacher decided.
'Please may I go to the toilet, with paper?' was the open sesame for those who needed more than a wee. The magic words 'with paper' signified a more serious call of nature and evoked a speedier reaction from the teacher, who doubled as the keeper of the class toilet paper, and became a one-man rapid response unit as he fumbled with the key to the stronghold that was the toilet paper drawer, whilst the hapless child squirmed in front of his classmates. The drawer would be opened to reveal the precious material within, but still the protocol had to be followed with teacher counting out the mandatory five pieces of Izal toilet paper. The flustered pupil was then allowed to scurry off along the corridor, the fingers of one hand secured between clenched buttocks whilst clutching the five pieces of Izal in the other hand and hoping that the sanctuary of the toilet cubicle could be reached without mishap, all the time wishing that someone would invent something more effective than Izal. The youngsters of today don't know they're born, I say, they don't know they're born. Now they have a wide range of tissues from which to choose, including soft toilet tissue, super-soft toilet tissue, extra strength soft toilet tissue, super-soft toilet tissue with aloe vera, strawberry-flavoured soft toilet tissue and the top of the range luxury moist lightly-fragranced toilet tissue, whereas our choice was Izal and, if we were lucky, the tissue they used to wrap oranges in. The fruit tissues were a great luxury but didn't last long as you had to use about six at a time to make sure it was the tissues that did the wiping.

As I held up my hand in the hope teacher would let me go before I wet my pants, I awoke to find that there was a great deal of activity in the dormitory as the inmates were up and preparing for another day's walking. Everyone else had managed to obtain the warden's signature on their parole papers and were moving on after just one night of detention, but we faced another night in the Black Hole ... I mean Black Sail.

It seems to me that regular hostellers have an inexplicable need to suffer hardship, almost as though it takes them back to sufferings in the past. For the man with the posh voice, Black Sail probably reminded him of boarding school and the shared dormitories and cold showers. For people like Tom, it is a reminder of young days sharing with siblings and of national service. For me, it is purgatory and I had to face another night of it.

We rose to find that it was still raining, but only lightly. The big problem now was that the cloud base seemed to be within touching distance above our heads, so that visibility on the fells would be zilch. Paul's shin was no better and he decided to limp all the way to Great Langdale to collect his car and drive home. This was a long walk in appalling conditions and must have been murder for him in view of the pain. What a man! Still in competition in the discomfort stakes, Andy claimed that his back had seized up and that he was also in considerable pain.

'I need someone to put my socks on for me.'

'Piss off, Andy'


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