Skiddaw House: Loneliest House in England No More
Morning breaks on the wide valley spreading in front of Skiddaw House in the north of England’s Lake District, low clouds bringing with them the British promise of rainy weather and brooding thoughts. To head out or to stay in. Rising gently to the west like the crest of a giant wave, Skiddaw towers from the top of its 951 m / 3,054 ft over the open sloping landscape parted at its lowest point by a silver stream. At the back, the valley’s curves are interrupted by a human anomaly, the rectangular walls of a house once described as the loneliest house in England––Skiddaw House.
You may be familiar with the romantic Lake District National Park that inspired Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit books and William Wordsworth’s epic poems, but Skiddaw is in a mountain range that’s out the way, rugged and little known. It’s nothing like the postcards.
In fact, Skiddaw House may have seemed a century ago like the furthest outpost of civilization in a barren landscape. However, things have changed. Laughter and discussions now fill common rooms heated by a wood stove and the sounds of life have awakened the ghost of grouse shooting days gone by. Thanks to Herculean efforts by many nature lovers over the years, Skiddaw House welcomes visitors as an independent youth hostel and is enjoying a post-lockdown renaissance.
When I reach Skiddaw House with a heavy pack on my back, three teenagers by my side, I lay eyes on the building that we are to call home for the next four days and my first response is to think it ugly and charmless, gray all over. By the time we leave four days later, this ugly house has won us over. It has become a haven of human warmth and camaraderie, a cozy place to recharge our depleted urban batteries, find new friends and regain a modicum of sanity under big skies. To say that we leave reluctantly is an understatement.
Yet when Skiddaw House was first built as a shed in the 13th century, it was not destined to become a refuge for the soul.
Ghosts of Shepherds Past
If walls could whisper tales of old, this would tell tales of isolated shepherds, although sheep were not the initial reason Skiddaw House was built.
Shuffling together through thick heather, the early occupants of Skiddaw House probably traveled from further than four mountain miles away on foot, fording becks––streams in the Lake District in the north of England––and braving unpredictable mountain weather to partake in that most gentlemanly British activity known as grouse hunting up until the 18th and 19th centuries.
Half of the house served as lodging for grouse hunting parties for Lord Leconfield and his friends, the other half being dedicated to shepherding. Indeed, grouse hunting and sheep were an obvious match for our ancestors for whom “a certain amount of sheep was permissible on grouse moor … the sheep could be removed from the fell for the winter and spring, allowing the heather to be burned and the vegetation to recover from the grazing of the summer.”
A testament of fortitude, the last resident of Skiddaw House was a shepherd by the delicious name of Pearson Dalton. For nearly half a century, this Lakeland shepherd lived alone with his dogs, goats and cat in the house, looking after a thousand sheep on the fells. In 1922, he went to Skiddaw House on a month’s trial to look after the sheep and stayed there through all the long winters of most memories until 1969, when he retired at the tender age of 75 years. During all this time, he never changed his routine. After weekdays spent shepherding at Skiddaw House, he took the same route on foot every weekend, six or seven miles northwards round the slopes of Great Calva to his sister’s home near John Peel’s Caldbeck, and returned the following Monday on foot.
Pearson Dalton is the stuff of legends. And we are stepping into the house he called home during 47 years.
Cast iron stove
On that first evening as we walk into the main dining and living room, the first item we notice is a black cast iron stove nestled inside the partition wall with a smaller parlor. Radiating heat from burning logs, the stove casts an orange glow on a group of four, whose eyes look up from a game of cards as we push the door open, then quickly get back to earthly occupations.
In the mountains, keeping warm is a necessity and we already look forward to sitting by the stove with our deck of cards, or maybe with a board game as we expect to find a few waiting for keen guests. We will eventually, the following day, teenagers blissfully warming the soles of their feet by the base of the stove where it’s that Goldilocks temperature that is neither too hot nor too cold, just perfect.
In the meantime, we are carrying big loads like donkeys and I ask around, where to now please? Why, we should walk straight through the backdoor to find the reception. It’s literally 10m away, if that, and we are greeted by the infectious smile of hostel manager Sue.
As can be expected, one of the few house rules we hear from Sue is a stove tutorial. How we should close the stove door to prevent sparks from flying out, how we should not hesitate to feed the fire by adding more logs, and how the stove is there for everybody’s enjoyment. So really, we should use it if we feel the need. In a few words, this is our home for the next four days and with the other guests, we are all collectively curators of the stove, keepers of fire, and firefighters as well. This sounds right and adding to the home feel, we meet shortly after Sue the second most important living being at Skiddaw House.
Meeting Jura, Skiddaw House’s pet, is like meeting the softest furry dog around. Brown-haired, good-tempered, enthusiastic, Jura likes to welcome visitors.
Named after the island of Jura in Scotland, and its eponymous whisky, Jura prompts an observation from Sebastian, one of my teen trio. “One of our kitchen porters stole a bottle of Jura whisky.” This sounds like a good story. Sebastian works at a famous historic English pub along the river Thames in London and apparently––you didn’t hear it from me––bottles sometimes mysteriously disappear from the inventory. That one bottle of Jura whisky never surfaced again. “It was expensive whisky,” Sebastian adds, and we nod in understanding.
After he drops his observation, we all look at Jura the dog, who seems very happy to greet new guests and obviously oblivious of his connection to a famous stolen bottle of whisky. Jura becomes my girls’ favorite dog instantly. Luckily, they are not afraid of dogs but some people are, and Sue is mindful of keeping Jura away from people who are uncomfortable with dogs.
Our room is upstairs, Sue announces, handing me a key with a wood cutout featuring the image of a wagtail, a small graceful yellow and green bird who notoriously wags its tail up and down. Climbing up the wooden staircase, we reach the landing and turn left to find our room at the back of a short hallway.
Based on a few youth hostel experiences, I am expecting a room cramped with bunk beds wall to wall, a single chair somewhere and a double hung window that’s hard to open. Instead, we all scream with joy. So much space!
The beds are already made with white linen and fluffy comforters, a table by the door offers a choice of no less than eight rubber hot water bottles for us to choose from (for colder days when the room’s chilly), and the room sports two windows for the front and side of the building. This is proper luxury. My merry band of teenagers selects their beds and I get the bed facing the side window. I feel that we are going to sleep very well.
Lord Leconfield’s Lodgings
The next morning, I can’t help but admire the fact that a couple of bedrooms feature elegant decorative fireplaces, incongruous luxuries in a rural hostel even if hidden behind bed headboards.
The following day as I read a book on the history of the building called The lo, I understand the fireplaces. The middle bedroom used to be Lord Leconfield’s bedroom, and the next one over would have been used by his guests. A sturdy but classy fireplace makes total grouse shooting sense in that context.
Across the hallway, a simple and clean bathroom offers modern amenities to the weary traveler. With a white porcelain basin, roomy shower, WC and chair, the room has all we could possibly need to feel like human beings after a long hike. Days later, I am even vaguely impressed that we cannot hear the shower as if the water were running inside our bedroom, testament to the sturdiness of some partition walls.
The sound of acoustic rock music
On the first morning as I open my eyes, I hear a gentle melody through the wooden floor. Somebody is playing the guitar downstairs. This may seem like nothing but sounds, or the absence of sounds, are what makes a stay at Skiddaw House very unusual. Being miles away from any human settlement, Skiddaw House is exceptionally quiet. Sue had warned me that some people find the silence unsettling and have a hard time falling asleep.
Skiddaw House is also not connected to any internet or phone signal, which effectively makes natural sounds the dominant background to our days and nights. Whether it’s the sound of the wind or the barking of a dog (not necessarily Jura), feet shuffling in the hallway or voices ringing loud and clear on the doorstep outside, the sound repertoire of Skiddaw House is on a different scale from any countryside escape.
So again, I hear a guitar and wonder who brought a guitar and who plays the guitar. Too many questions to stay in bed. I’m already on my feet.
A few minutes later, I’m downstairs and walk over to the parlor, a cozy room with a well organized bookshelf, rocking chair and a desk filled with board games. This used to be the dining room in Lord Leconfield’s grouse shooting days, but rooms have been switched around and the dining room is now in the large communal room next door.
One of the older men we met on the first night is playing a few chords on a guitar that was hanging on the wall behind the couch. I remember him as he thanked me for bringing lemon drizzle cakes in our backpacks to celebrate the Queen’s Jubilee. After chocolate cake, lemon drizzle cake has to be the greatest community enabler in the UK, and Sue was kind enough to serve us chilled prosecco and fruit soda as a treat. That was stage 1 of an otherwise Jubilee-proof extended weekend. The clock is ticking and the morning guitarist is about to set off on his day’s hike. Before leaving, he hangs the guitar back in place, but the guitar doesn’t get to hang about for long.
Later that day, in comes a tall man with his two teenagers. With a larger than life personality, journalist John Harris helps his son James’s fundraising walk along the 70-mile Cumbria Way. As per the fundraising page, “James is 15, he’s autistic and he’s brilliant… and he’s making sure more autistic people can learn to swim.”
That evening, John treats us to the most amazing live concert we could have dreamed of, with him on guitar and vocals, his son on vocals and his daughter on soda can percussions.
Together, they cover a lot of acoustic rock ground, including the Beatles (Twist and shout), the Clash (Should I stay or should I go), the Rolling Stones (Satisfaction), Oasis (Cigarettes & Alcohol), the Velvet Underground (Waiting for the Man), and we finish on a rousing rendition of Oasis’ Champagne Supernova joined by all around the table, which means eleven people in the same room and anybody within a mile’s earshot. I swear the walls of the house shake and shudder with drunken abandon that night. For that special Jubilee touch, John also plays the Sex Pistols’ God save the Queen which, incidentally, tops the UK charts that 2022 Jubilee weekend, 35 years after its release for another Jubilee in times of political crisis and social unrest. Well done, John, well done.
Slightly before midnight, we all go to bed with music on our minds. You couldn’t expect a better gift from random encounters at a remote hostel.
What do Pub Quiz, Bananagram, Qwordie and Uno have in common?
Another gift of Skiddaw House, and it is going to sound crazy that I even write it, is the total absence of internet or mobile connectivity. The Depp and Heard trial could have gone explosive that weekend and nobody would have known (or cared). We are as unplugged as it comes and without screens to look at or listen to, us humans interact differently. That is, we …
… joke, and
… play games,
… all with total strangers.
Obviously, the one thing that Pub Quiz, Bananagram, Qwordie and Uno have in common is that they are board games, but they are so much more than that when there are so few of us and, basically, not much else to do other than counting sheep (real ones).
With John and family, Andy and family, my teens, we play Pub Quiz. Andy is lethal, he’s clearly done this before and we barely have time to react that he’s already blurted out a mostly correct answer. Does it help that he’s a PE teacher, that his wife teaches biology, and that many questions touch on popular culture such as sports, physiology, or weird random facts? Meh, maybe, but Andy’s got this regardless (even if John is a close Pub Quiz runner up and his daughter smashes all the history questions).
The one question that stumps everyone, and I should have remembered the answer, is Dr Frankenstein’s first name. I am a huge fan of Kenneth Brannagh’s 1994 Frankenstein movie and his name echoes down the doomed walls of his mansion and lab many a time over the course of the movie’s 123 minutes. Victor, is the answer. Victor Frankenstein.
The following night, we introduce Sue to Bananagram, the speed-Scrabble game where you build your own crosswords based on letters picked off a pile. Sue has never played the game before and she gives it her best, which is possibly too best for us. Suffice to say that Sue creams us all, winning almost every game with a smile. I try to think of some homeground mountain hostel advantage, but I can’t. She is genuinely good with words.
To Uno and Qwordie fall the honor of the fireside, soda and teacup games, the relaxed games that I play with my teens on a rest day where we decide to stay in and turn our energy to watercolor, writing or reading.
When not reading books, lacing up boots for walks or playing games, we prepare meals with a setup that I‘ve never seen before. The kitchen is split in two different areas and two different rooms.
Cooking is done in the main communal room, on four gas-powered stovetops and grills perched on a long stainless steel counter that runs the length of the room either side of the front door. In my opinion, whoever is prepping meals enjoys the best views in the house as the workstations face windows, the open valley and Skiddaw.
Washing pots and pans, drawing water, and storing away cutlery and chinaware are done in the scullery, a pint-size room behind a door that’s both hard to swing open from the outside and hard to pull open from the inside. Inside the scullery, wall shelves are neatly stacked with unassorted bowls, plates, tea pots and glasses.
I try to remember if I have ever used the word scullery in an everyday context and no, I don’t think so. The word scullery is derived from the Old French word escuelerie “office of the servant in charge of plates, etc.; place where dishes are kept,” from escuelier “keeper of the dishes,” from escuele “dish” (12c., Modern French écuelle). We still use the word écuelle in French but escuelerie must have fallen into oblivion a few centuries ago. Either that or fewer people have castles to afford room for sculleries.
In English, interestingly, scullery is mostly associated in literature with the lowest of the lowest on the social ladder, maids. Arthur Conan Doyle wrote in Sherlock Holmes, “Gone to the nearest public-house. That is the centre of country gossip. They would have told you every name, from the master to the scullery-maid.”
Skiddaw House may be a hostel, but it’s a hostel with a pedigree.
The Highest Grocery Shop in the Lake District
For essentials and more, Sue keeps behind locked door a few shelves packed with various food and non-food items. At 5pm, the “bar” opens as Skiddaw House is also fully licensed and visitors like to kick back by the fire with a cold drink in their hands. To us, that little grocery shop is a perfect excuse to discover local craft beers with potato chips and to bring back a souvenir yellow mug whose angled handle I find particularly interesting.
Before our stay, Sue describes to me in an email what we can find at the grocery. “Starters are £2 – soups and noodles, Main Course £5 – Pasta, Sauces, Rice, Curry, Pie and Veg. Desserts are £2 – Brownie and Cream, Sponge Pudding and Custard, Peaches and Cream. There are vegan and GF options.” When I tell her that we have two vegetarians bordering on vegans in the group, she replies that she can offer vegan pesto, chilli pesto and stir in sauces, vegan chilli, as well as Chicken Tikka pouches, “and then I can weigh out the appropriate amount of rice or pasta to go with each one.” Thanks to Sue, we know that we have fall back dinner plans within the building and that is a total savior.
Whenever packing food, it’s always tricky to gauge the right quantities or supplies ahead of time. It can even end up in the comical last dinner we eat, finishing off a few leftovers and having breakfast for dinner––namely three soft-boiled eggs each, and soldiers buttered as high as possible to finish off a slab of butter.
For a post exam vacation, Skiddaw House has certainly hit the spot. Despite having stayed four days less than a mile from Skiddaw, we have managed to climb neither Skiddaw, nor Blencathra, nor Bannerdale Crags whose disused mines I meant to explore.
If you are not coming on post-exam vacations, Skiddaw and Blencathra are the crown jewels of this mountain range in the Lake District and well worth a long day out. For thrill seekers, Blencathra’s aptly named Sharp Edge route is sure to take your breath away––provided you have a good head for heights.
When time comes to leave Skiddaw House, we feel like we are also leaving a little bit of our heart in this beautiful spot in the mountains. Under the sun, we take pictures with Sue and Jura in front of the hostel and promise to return. How could we not?