Mosedale Cottage is the tiny white smudge that you can see slightly left of centre in the above photo. There are no roads, houses, or any other forms of civilisation whatsoever in the entire rest of that picture, or for several miles around on either side. It is an old quarrymen’s hut, now partially converted into a bothy, hiding in one of the less dramatic, less frequented of the several Mosedales in the Lake District, and is a destination that I’ve had my eye on for ages. I finally managed to pay it a visit the other night, getting myself there by bike, naturally.
It had been over a year since I last did a bothy ride, although this was not for want of trying; I have had to rearrange several plans for overnight trips into the hills as family and business interfered during the past few months. After much discussion, it finally looked like the stars had aligned and we were all available this Thursday, so plans were made, forecasts monitored, bikes fettled and bags packed, until everything was ready. At the last minute one of our number had to drop out, due to some sort of work-related nonsense, but the remaining two-thirds of us determined to carry on no matter what, and Rik and I made our way up to the eastern fringes of the Lakes. Looking at the map of the surrounding area it was easy to sketch out a promising itinerary incorporating an overnight stay, and we parked up at Wet Sleddale reservoir to test my carefully devised route at about half-seven.
Wet Sleddale’s main claim to fame is its status as the destination for Withnail and I’s holiday-by-mistake (warning: slightly sweary). I can now vouch for the documentary accuracy of the above linked clip with regards to the climate, terrain, and populace depicted in the film, and whilst it wasn’t actually belting it down when we rode off, the ground held plentiful evidence that rain was not exactly a rare climactic phenomenon hereabouts. We even met a farmer who yelled something about a gate, it was uncanny. The track past Sleddale Hall, the dilapidated ‘Crow Crag’ of the film, was dry enough, but once we reached the upper reaches of the valley we discovered that it is not idly named. Where the track was solid, it was submerged in deep puddles or channelling run-off, but this was nothing in comparison to the sections of almost featureless bog that the map directed us across when the track disappeared. Had it not been for flattened-grass quad-bike trails left by the shepherds we would have had difficulty picking our way across the top over to Mosedale. We did eventually reach the watershed between the valleys, although this is perhaps a misnomer, as most of the precipitation that lands here seems to prefer to hang about for as long as possible, in many places showing blunt defiance of the laws of gravity and doggedly adhering to inclines of thirty degrees or more. Our altitude allowed us to see over towards our destination, and after slithering down vague and incoherent tracks over waterlogged slopes to a wooden bridge, we made our way up the final, damp drag to the cottage.
The cottage itself is very fancy for a bothy: it has a stove, a sleeping platform in a boarded, insulated room, well fitted windows, chairs, tables, and even a pair of not-completely horrible sofas to sit on. There was no fuel or lighting at all, but it was warm enough inside, and I managed to salvage three working candles by melting the dregs of various tealights together and fashioning wicks from a discarded clothing label (you have to make your own entertainment in a bothy). We had brought a couple of beers apiece and spent an hour or two chatting before turning in at around eleven. I slept pretty well, waking only a handful of times and dropping back off easily.
The next morning dawned wet, a persistent rain drumming down and the lowest clouds smudging the tops of the surrounding fells. After putting a short note in the bothy book and eating a very basic breakfast we packed up quickly to minimise the pain of leaving our nice dry shelter for several hours of what was sure to be very damp riding. Feet were soaked within yards of the door, courtesy of a river crossing, although even without this the mostly submerged bridleway down the valley would have left us in the same condition in very short order. There clearly used to be a decent track up Mosedale to the quarries above the cottage, but it has well and truly fallen into disuse and is now hidden beneath boggy turf for long stretches. Even the switchbacks dropping down to Swindale Head are almost totally overgrown, and whilst the descent may be a pleasant enough ride in dry conditions, it was pretty frustrating and unrewarding on this morning.
We slithered down to the farms at the end of the road, making the most of what few interesting sections of trail we could find, before turning left and starting to ascend sharply again on the ominously named Old Corpse Road to Mardale. This was the route used to transport the dead to their final resting places at the nearest church, one of many old coffin roads in the Lakes, and there were quite a few of the large, flat coffin-stone boulders in evidence showing that frequent rests would have been needed whilst carrying the deceased up this hill, even with the path in better repair.
Once the steep climb out of the valley has been dealt with the path was surprisingly solid, wet under wheel but not swampy, and we made good progress over to the top of the descent alongside Rowantreethwaite Beck. This section of the ride was where we finally found some proper Lakeland mountain-biking, with spectacular views and an enjoyable, challenging sequence of switchbacks. Unfortunately it was also incredibly slippery and after a few worrying moments where my front wheel stubbornly refused to go in anything like the required direction, I ended up walking the bike down many of the more tricky bits. The slaty rock hereabouts is greasy in the wet, and combined with the mud and rain and wind I decided that getting off the hill in one piece was more important than riding out the descent in its entirety. From the bottom of the switchbacks the road along the side of Haweswater curved us back towards our start pleasantly enough, and just past the dam we joined a permissive bridleway following a private utility company road which meandered eventually almost all the way to the car park. It was a bit of a slog into headwind-driven rain for the last half hour or so, and we were very glad to finally reach the van, crank the heating up, and change into some dry clothes.
It was great to get out into the hills and spend a night a bit further from civilisation for a change, although I’m not sure I’ll bother returning to Mosedale with a bicycle, the tracks thereabouts are not really worth the effort. Even walking out there would be a fair old slog without much obvious reward for most tastes, and lacking as it does the dramatic Lakeland scenery that starts to appear in the next valley over I can see why fewer people explore this corner of the hills. We saw no other visitors to the fells in the entire course of the trip after leaving the car park; indeed, barring a couple of farmers in the valleys, we saw nobody at all away from the roads. Mosedale Cottage itself is a remarkable thing, a genuine, freely available bothy in one of the busiest national parks in England, and I suspect that it is only the relatively unappealing nature of the surrounding countryside which keeps it from becoming completely overrun. Perusing the bothy log book revealed that it has had visitors more nights than not over the past few months, so even out here in the bleakest reaches of nowhere it attracts a fair bit of traffic. I think that The Old Corpse Road would be worth a visit in better conditions, however, even given the slog of a climb required to get over it, and I think there must be a decent ride to be put together incorporating this trail somehow. I will probably be back to further explore this side of the Lake District again at some point, but I suspect I won’t be bothering with the drag over from Wet Sleddale again.