A Pilgrimage to St Herbert’s Isle
At the start of July, the belt of covid restrictions was loosened another notch, allowing overnight stays away from home for the first time since March. Lockdown had already prevented me going on a trip down the Spey, and a wilderness trip in the North-west Highlands so I was itching to get away even for a single night. That itch was particularly acute just now, as last year we had planned a family holiday to Norway for the first half of the month but were now looking at grabbing a short break somewhere in England.
I still had the leave booked, so family holiday arranged for the following week, I decided to go for a solo wild camp. Derwentwater, with a night on St Herbert’s Isle, was the obvious choice. It is a trip I have done several times before. It is a doable in most weathers and isn’t a huge drive from South Yorkshire. So, my kit was packed, the outlander, its deeper gel coat scratches newly repaired and keel-easy strips in place on its stems after a lockdown refit, on the roof rack. Normally on a trip like this I just use a variety of dry bags and spread things among them to spread the load in the canoe, but some thought went into my packing this time. The idea was to use one big portage bag, with all my kit placed in order of use, as a dry run for future trips with portages both to make the portages quicker and making and breaking camp more efficient.
The forecast for the start of the week wasn’t great. A band of wind and rain was expected in the Lakes sometime on Tuesday, but there was some uncertainty about how long the unsettled weather would take to clear. I decided to go ahead of the frontal system – better to go with a forecast of one and a bit good days and start the trip on the Monday, than maybe not go at all.
Even the drive lifted my spirits. Crossing the Pennines on the A66 may not be quite the quickest way north and west, but I love the landscape of the North Pennines. Following my well-worn route, I arrived at Kettleshulme carpark on the south-eastern shore of the lake in the early afternoon sunshine. In keeping with most places this year, there were plenty of people out on various watercraft, mostly SUPs, with a handful of kayaks thrown in. No-one was venturing very far from the launch point though, so it was only a few minutes before I was paddling empty water.
A moderate breeze ruffled the lake and kept the air temperature pleasantly cool in the sun, as broken clouds blew over, their shadows travelling over Borrowdale ahead of me. Mary Mount Hotel with its landing stage looked quite picturesque under the slopes of Lodore Wood
The water levels were high. There was nearly no beach to launch from at Kettleshume, and the islands in the estuary of the Upper Derwent were flooded. The view north to Skiddaw and Lonscale Fell above Keswick caught my eye, the hills just starting to shade with a belt of heather.
My usual habit on this trip is to travel up the Upper Derwent for a way, before returning down the west shore of the lake to St Herbert’s Isle. And so it was today. South, dramatic lighting complemented the landscape, the heights of High Spy and Grange Fell gates to Borrowdale. Three SUP paddlers were making their way downriver, working hard against the sail effect of their bodies.
With the high water, the marshes were flooded. My GPS track shows me apparently paddling over dry land, but there was plenty of water under my hull. The grasses damped all waves, so I was able to enjoy the reflections of trees I could usually only admire from afar.
Resting on the riverbank, or rather just above it, I took in the northern prospect along the lake, sedges standing in cloud pools on the water’s surface as those same clouds’ shadows patterned the fells.
Strong sidelight enlivened the trees on the edge of the Great Bay, bringing them out from the background.
My course upriver was a little vague as I wandered from the channel into lagoons and bays amongst the grass of the marsh. The constantly changing light kept my eye busier than my paddle as sun and shadow highlighted one part of the landscape then another. The backlight on the foreground made me reach for the camera again before I made a more determined effort to cover some ground.
It wasn’t long though before another bay attracted me. It looked like you could almost cut the corner of Canon Dub and head straight to the Chinese Bridge. In fact, there was a low ridge of dry ground in between, but I enjoyed the unusual viewpoint of a familiar landmark.
A flock of barnacle geese grazed on the bank, clearly in moult with few flight feathers present. Their latin name derives in part from the old Norse Brandgas or ‘burnt (ie black) goose. In myth going back 900 years, they were thought to hatch from goose barnacles, and in parts of Ireland were classed as fish because of this – as a result they could be eaten during Lenten abstinence from meat. The wonders of folk wisdom! I had brought my own provisions, however, and so had no need to try to catch one.
The river was full to its banks, allowing full clearance of my deep-water paddle over the gravel beds below the bridge and granting me a wider view of the valley. The river glowed with reflections.
There was very little current to work against, the river being backed up along way upstream, so it was a gentle journey passed Fitts Turnhole. No need to turn here for me. The heart of Borrowdale beckoned me on. Trees on both banks leant over their reflections, and in the distance the ridges of Nitting Haws and Grange Crags closed in on the river.
Below Ingshead Hole, the river usually narrows to flow fast over another shingle band. Often this has required a bit of effort to get passed, sometimes even a spot of punting with the paddle. Today there was just a slight ruffling of the surface.
Ingshead Hole, on a sharp bend, is my previous high point on upriver trips. There has always been a small drop here on the bend. The boat could be lined up it easily enough, but I have never bothered, the focus of my trips being the lake itself. Today it passed without note, and I decided I would try for the bridge at Grange. It was new territory from here, and I enjoyed the views up the now restricted valley as I passed under Grange Crags.
Round one more bend and the bridge was suddenly in view. The current was appreciable now, and I had to pick a line up bankside eddies to make it easier. And then I was there, aground in the shallows of the shingle band below the bridge. The last fifty yards or so had been a bit of a fight in ever faster, shallower water, so I rested for a minute or two, enjoying the small details of the water margin.
A snack and a drink, then it was time to stretch my legs a bit. I had reached my goal, give or take a few yards. The village developed around a monastic grange built by the monks of Furness Abbey, and the bridge itself was built in 1675.
It spans both channels, but the arch over the river-right channel is the one that caught my eye, with a more elegant span and the drama of the Borrowdale skyline behind it
Having arrived, it wasn’t long before I felt I should leave again. Summer days are long, but I wanted to have plenty of time to explore the west bank of Derwentwater, and to find a quiet camp if the island was busy. A couple of traverses of the current in my loaded boat, just to feel the play of it on the hull, and I turned downstream.
Even though I hadn’t found the flow too hard to travel against, it pushed me along nicely, and before long I was back at Ingshead Hole. Ducking under sycamore branches, I swung into the eddy to look back upstream.
Next the Chinese bridge came by, the cliffs of Falcon Crag dominating the skyline.
On my way upstream I had noticed some yellow loosestrife growing on the bank, and I stopped before leaving the estuary to take a closer look. This is a native of south east Europe, but having been introduced as a garden plant, has widely naturalised in wet sites flowering through midsummer.
My route now lay west to Myrtle Bay, but before I left the marshes, I paddled over the headland to some flooded trees for another view up Borrowdale. The cloud cover had thickened now, and a wind picked up to a brisk south-westerly that was to push me along for the rest of the afternoon.
As I crossed the mouth of the Great Bay, a couple of holes appeared in the blanket of cloud and a splash of light fell through to brighten the flanks of distant Rosthwaite Fell. I reached again for the camera before continuing to the shelter of Myrtle Bay.
This bay and its neighbouring inlets, Abbot’s Bay and Brandlehow Bay, are delightful to explore. Sheltered by the heights of Maiden Moor and Cat Bells, with wooded shores, I have spent many happy hours both afloat and ashore with camera in hand. Down by the water, a tiny sedum draped itself over a rock. The water was so still I was able to use my macro lens from the boat to make an image.
The woods come down to the water at the back of the bay, and today the waters had risen to meet them. I must have made similar images on every visit by boat to this spot, but there is just something that appeals to me about scots pines reflected in water. So, without apology, here is another one!
A group of goosanders had gathered offshore of me but proved rather camera-shy as I turned the long lens towards them. I was left looking at the scatter of light from their wake as the shutter opened.
Otter Island and the woods of Manesty Park caught the afternoon sun as I crossed Abbot’s Bay. The island, while small, looks inviting, but is unfortunately both private and overlooked by a house, so I left it unvisited.
Afternoon was turning to early evening now. The sun was in the west, angled light catching the treetops and headlands I had passed as I looked back from Withesike Bay.
Looking north and east, light played over Lonscale Crags, while my destination lurked in shadow.
Turning towards my island from the Hawes End jetty I was puzzled by what appeared to be two oversized heads in bright swimming caps. Something looked odd though, the arms appeared to be in the wrong place in relation to the heads. It was only when I zoomed in I realised the ‘heads’ were the swim floats of two openwater swimmers, travelling in perfect stroke across the bay.
The conifers along the shore provided an attractive foreground to the sunlit fells of Borrowdale, Otterbield island tucked in shadow in front as I crossed the lake myself
Slanting sunlight just grazed the nose of Cat Bells and I could just make out the figure of a walker taking the steep way up to the ridge path against darkening clouds
Such are the demands of photography though, that as the light changed, I detoured some way north of St Herbert’s isle to get the canoe into position to make the most of the cloud structure and the sidelight falling down the flanks of Cat Bells.
My art satisfied, it was time to head to the island. It was rather smaller than on previous visits, the long shingle spur at the north end submerged, and the trees awash around its circumference.
Glorious evening light bathed the landscape in all directions, and my landfall was delayed again by camera work. Views both north and south were stunning.
Finally I made landfall at the north end of the island. The family of SUP paddlers who had been there when I first got there had left, and I had the island to myself. St Herbert for whom the island is named, was a 7thcentury monk, credited with bringing Christianity to the region. He lived in isolation on the island, which became a centre of pilgrimage. Friars’ Crag on the eastern shore is named after the monks who used to travel there. Apparently the remains of his hermitage can still be found, but I have never spotted them.
Although the forecast was for a windy night, and it was already picking up strength blowing from the west, I decided to stay at the north end rather than go deeper into the woods for more shelter. This was the only open bit of shoreline available in these water levels, and the wind would keep any midges at bay.
My carefully layered packing now would be tested. First came the tarp, then the stove, water filter and food. With shelter up and a brew on, next was my folding chair, a little luxury. Then the hammock, set high under the tarp because of the windy night forecast, sleeping bag and another luxury in the shape of a solar-rechargeable LED lamp to hang under the tarp. I was all set for the night.
After a meal, I sat by the shore watching the sunset develop before turning in for the night.
The night was indeed windy, stray gusts finding their way under the tarp to rock the hammock from time to time, and a brief but noisy shower of rain rattled down in the small hours.
I was woken by a pair of raucous crows calling in the trees overhead not long after sunrise. Peering out under the tarp I could see it was a grey affair, nothing to get out of bed for, so I lounged for a while longer snug in my down bag before setting about the business of the day.
The plan was to head back to Kettleshume before the wardens came around again to renew the parking ticket, then head out again to make the most of whatever time the weather allowed me on the water. There is something very satisfying about a wild camp on an island, especially when you’re the only one there. I enjoyed a quiet breakfast on the shore before reversing yesterday’s procedures to break camp. I had made a ‘tarp snake’ tube to help stow it quickly. Much the same idea as the tubes used to pack up hammocks, it worked very well, allowing the tarp and its rigging to be rolled up and stored ready for easy rigging at another sight. Kept in a separate drybag from the rest of the kit inside the portage bag, it meant I could derig a wet tarp and rerig it at the next camp with the minimum of hassle.
In good time my camp had disappeared, the site as I had found it and the boat loaded ready to go.
With a couple of hours in hand, I took a loop northward first, skirting Lord’s Island where the remains of the fortified manor of the Earls of Derwentwater can still be seen, then following the east bank south. Borrowdale, with Rampsholme Island in the foreground, presented a very different character today.
The wind had increased overnight and swung round between north and west, blowing over my shoulder to give me a bit of a shove along. The landing stage at Barrow Bay was soon ahead, nearly awash.
Soon after I hauled the boat onto the gravel back at Kettleshume. Here in its sheltered corner of the lake, the water was an oily calm I remembered from my days as a sailing instructor on the Thames estuary presaging a rain front coming in.
I unloaded the camping gear back into the truck and consulted the forecast. What did we do before mobile internet? Live weather radar at my fingertips – it really is such a benefit. The rain was a few hours away yet, so I decided to head back out with the cameras on board to spend a bit more time exploring the south end of the lake.
Following the bank towards Mary Mount the high waters gave me close access to the bankside flowers, the deep red plantain flowers sticking up like miniature marker buoys.
Behind them by the outfall of Watendlath Beck, a bank of meadow-sweet filled my nose with fragrance and the edge of the beck itself was marked by a finger of reeds reflected in the shallow water.
I had intended on having a look around the inlet by the Mary Mount Hotel, but as I came round the corner I spotted a film crew standing opposite. It seemed an awful lot of effort to go to, to record a couple of people walking along the jetty.
So as not to disturb the shoot, I left again straight away, cutting through the flooded islands, enjoying the reflections.
The weather was still holding, so I nipped over to Myrtle Bay again. It was even calmer here today than yesterday. I swapped to the macro lens again for a shot of new fern fronds growing on a shoreside rock.
Enjoying the challenge of close up work from a mobile platform, I found a some wild thyme clinging to a clump of moss nearby.
In the corner of the bay a fence stood out into the water, reflections making it hard to judge were it became submerged. I spent a happy few minutes playing with compositions.
Along the shore a short way a fallen tree still grew, gamely hanging on above its own mirror image.
The light was a bright overcast, perfect for bringing out colour and detail. A small sapling stood out against the darker scots pines at the back of the bay, and I sat amongst reflected forest greens.
Those pines by the water’s edge caught my eye again, as they always do, and I stilled the boat to allow my wake to settle before making an image.
On my last summer visit, I had tried and failed to get a satisfactory composition of the lily pads that grow here. Today, with the flat calm and no breeze to shift the boat while I framed the shot, I faired much better.
Another detail shot followed, then it was time to stretch my legs after a couple of hours in the canoe.
All looked serene and calm. But sheltered under the woods and fells of the west bank, I couldn’t see the approaching weather. The first thing I knew was a scatter of fat rain drops across the water, which quickly developed into a shower, then a deluge. The change in wind direction I had been waiting for hadn’t been evident in the bay, but as I hurried back across the lake in ever deteriorating visibility it was there, driving the rain across the water’s surface. Soon soaked through, I was a drowned rat by the time I reached landfall, squelching my way to the truck to load the boat.
I could safely say the weather window was now firmly shut! Out on the lake, the film crew were now ensconced in a boat bristling with cameras and boom mikes, while the two figures who had strode along the jetty earlier hunched under waterproofs in a second boat.
I don’t know what they were filming, but they were certainly earning their pay. By contrast, I sat snug in the back of the truck getting dry, fresh-made tea in hand, before leaving to head home cleansed by the elements and refreshed in mind and body by my personal pilgrimage to the wild.