We thought it a good idea to go on a Winter adventure up into Dovedale in the Lake District’s Eastern Fells for a Priest Hole Cave wild camp. It turns out it was a bonkers idea, even for two very experienced hikers. The coldest night of our lives! Would I do it again?
A Winter expedition and wild camp in the Priest Hole Cave
After delivering a Navigation Workshop over in Borrowdale, John (fellow adventurer at Robustours, see link below) and I decided last minute that we should do something a bit ‘out there’.
We’d been out the night before in a snowstorm up to the Dubs Bothy from Honister and spent the night ‘cosy’ by the fire, as we took a big bag of wood with us.
‘Why don’t we go and bivvy camp in the Priest’s Hole cave?’ One of us suggested. That might have been me. No tents this weekend.
So after having a delicious meal in the pub at Brothers Water, the Brotherwater Inn, we grabbed our packed bags and headed towards Dovedale. It’s just gone 8 pm; it’s dark as you like and full Winter conditions lie quite low.
You cross a bridge and pass a farm then head South for a bit. Oh, I’ve just remembered that we passed through a field by the river and I’m positive that there would have been a path, BUT we ARE at time of writing training to be Mountain Leaders and our instincts sometimes take us from A to B in a straight line for the sake of it.
We were on the brink of doing our Mountain Leader Assessments and really rather good at navigation, so paths are now just a bonus and if we lose them, it’s all good. We head through this enclosure, hand-railing the river and come to a small crag barely noticeable on the map, especially at this time of night, which we had to climb. I’d forgotten all about that until right now.
Along the river, Dovedale Beck, just before we cross a little footbridge we sit and put on our Kahtoola Microspikes; it’s now icy and very slippy. We’re in the heart of Dovedale now. Read more about Winter Walking Gear here.
Route To The Priest Hole Cave
It’s actually not far up the valley until we misplace the path again, disappearing under the deepening snow, and start to clamber over boulders. I could do with excluding the next 2-3 hours as these two ‘master navigators’ spent looking for a hole in the cliff, clear on the map, without success. I even have a Fenix light, and that won’t reveal the slit in the rock we are to spend the night.
The two guys in the same pub tomorrow morning will tell us that everyone in the bar was watching us for hours searching and there was a cheer when our lights stabilised.
Priest Holes in England
After Queen Elizabeth I became queen in 1558, there were many plots by the Catholics to have her removed. Subsequently, there was much persecution of Catholic priests. Large houses would have hiding holes made under floors and behind walls to conceal local priests.
Rumour has it that Roman Catholic priest found the Priest’s Hole cave in the Lake District a haven during these times. I don’t remember where I picked that up, but it certainly adds to the excitement of getting there.
On with the adventure
Before we eventually found the cave, we had to climb what I can only refer to as a small glacier. There must be a gully there about 30ft wide and the snow, now frozen solid, comes spilling down it. We couldn’t even kick steps into this as it was so hard, so after donning the Grivel crampons, we set about cutting notches out of the ice as steps to climb up with the axes. A fall would take us plummeting towards the boulder field that we’d climbed up and down for the last couple of hours.
50ft up, we level off and try again on our search for a shelf where there may be a hole in the crag. Back again and up a bit more, disappointment after disappointment. We know we’re in the right place as we have resorted to checking the OS app on our phones for our exact location, but where in this sheer cliff face is the cave? Grid references only give a two-dimensional point on the map, we’re in the precise place but vertically challenged.
Finding The Priest Hole Cave
We sat down, had a drink and a snack bar, resolving to head back down or make our way up to Hart Crag and over Hartsop Above How, so we would achieve something and not be too disappointed. I wondered if our Priest Hole Cave wild camp was such a good idea.
‘I’ll take a little look over here first John’, I said, ‘I have a gut feeling about it I can’t let go. THEN we will go!’
Two minutes later I was shouting sweet delights. My ‘delights’ at 0100 hours were more like, ‘Yeh, John, we’ve found it, f###### hell we’ve found it.’ I’d like to say he just came running over. However, there were two awkward steps to climb on the way. So dangerous is the ice that I wonder how so many teenagers got to this place.
I got a photo of the two of us as, within seconds of arriving, John was getting into his bivvy bag, and 10 minutes after that we had our heads down, laughing and sighing. Patterdale Mountain Rescue Team can stay in bed tonight (so far).
A Freezing Night In A Cave
I woke at 2 am frozen to the bone, shivering and in pain with it. I’d broken the rules I use wild camping and not eaten before bunking down. The meal in the pub was supposed to be our supper! I got the stove out of the bag like my life depended on it and tried lighting the fuel in the small tin can I use for a burner, it won’t spark.
The cogs turn in my head, and I opt for an emergency match in my first aid kit. It lights the first time, and the liquid ignites. The water boils in my Alpkit titanium mug and in it goes, into the pouch of dehydrated food.
Waiting 10 minutes for my meal to suck up the water, I tucked it into my down jacket and started to warm up. It’s quite a wait at the -15c registered on the anemometer!
Waking Up In A Cave
I sleep like a baby for the next 5 hours or so, and the sun pokes itself up, out of view to the East, over the other side of Dove Crag which cradles us. It lights up the ridge of Hartsop Above How in front of us and eventually floods the valley. We can now see a safe way home.
We can clearly see now that the cave, which looks bigger in some photographs, is actually only comfortably big enough to squeeze 4 in with their bivvies. Any more would be very cosy. It’s perfect for the two of us.
I expected to see the talked about visitor’s book, but there was a single piece of coal and a plastic bag with a few cheap survival pieces in, Bear would even be at a loss.
Daylight, sunshine and a refreshed mind make a world of difference when you are trying to find your way, the route is as ‘clear as day’ from here now. In our crampons, we easily make our way down the valley into micro-spikes, then along the river into boots, the car park and morning coffee in the pub to speak with last night’s spectators.
What An Adventure
Winter walking in England has never been so good. Our Priest Hole Cave wild camp was true adventure.
Life doesn’t come with adventure built-in as standard. If we sit in our pants watching Netflix, marvelling at the excitement on the screen, we will never really live ourselves. We have to take life on, we have to dream. We have to invite adventure into our days, drag it into the night and smash the heck out of it.
Why not have a read of some of my Winter Walking blogs and prepare yourself for hiking in the snow.