Barn camping in the Lake District

You don't need to lug a tent on a long-distance walk in the Lakes – barn camping is just as fun, and you can even take your dog

It's so easy when they're puppies. You stroll down the street and they come home exhausted. People stop and have conversations.

"Aren't you gorgeous?"

(That can be disappointing, of course: it's the dog who is being addressed, not you). Then they get bigger. They want proper walks. They want sticks thrown. Their faeces have to be picked up - quell the gag reflex – and disposed of in designated bins. Why couldn't we have had a horse instead? People rush outdoors and collect the stuff for you when you have a horse – even if house-training is tricky and they destroy the sofa. But no, we got a mongrel terrier pup from a rescue centre. And when Wilf reached full size, I started looking to take him for a decent walk in deep countryside – a rite of a passage for a young hound, somewhere beyond the realm of the dreaded poo bin. There were two teenage sons too, Con and Niall, and they seemed surprisingly enthusiastic – there's one tip for getting your kids to walk: buy or borrow a dog.

The Lake District seemed a good choice – plenty of wonderful walking there – but with snow on the way I didn't fancy camping. Instead, I booked us into a couple of barns. There's a whole slew of them across the Lakes, offering varying degrees of comfort from downright spartan to . . . well, let's call it cosily austere. Nevertheless, they did seem to offer a cushier alternative to canvas.

The Skiddaw Hotel in Keswick was willing to take a dog for a night in one of their dog-friendly rooms, so we planned on a comfortable start followed by three days of walking in a great horseshoe around the southern extremities of Borrowdale.

I have this fond vision of dogs in hotels and pubs. It's an affable labrador-type creature laid out under the table, snoozing. At the Skiddaw, Wilf isn't like that. He runs riot. He loves hotels. He loves the way people drop crisps in the bar. He sneaks into a neighbour's room and sniffs their luggage for food. Curiously, they laugh indulgently and say things like, "You're a lovable chap, aren't you?" A dog's life doesn't seem so bad, really. The last time I barged into someone else's hotel room and ran around barking, I spent the night in the cells. Wilf soon settles down on his dedicated luxury bed and sleeps like a baby. I spend the night half-awake, stirring at every doggy snort, worrying that he'll get up and cock his leg on the four-poster. Mercifully that doesn't happen.

At first light, we set out. Winter walking means every hour of daylight is precious. We soon leave Keswick behind and climb steadily on to the ridge of High Seat. The weather forecast is for snow showers, but all we get is mist and cloud and occasional tantalising glimpses of Derwent Water below. On Bleaberry Fell, Wilf disappears for 10 minutes and I fear he will return with one of the black grouse that are chuckling at us from afar (not a sheep, we took the precaution of stock-training him before the trip, and anyway he would look silly as he's only knee-height to a ewe). He eventually reappears, grouseless, bounding across clumps of heather as if he's on springs.

We eat our lunch looking down at Watendlath, perhaps the most idyllic of Lakeland settings with its clutch of farmhouses and tiny tarn in a natural bowl. Then we yomp down to Rosthwaite in Borrowdale and search out Dinah Hoggus Barn.

Dinah Hogg Barn, Rosthwaite
Photograph: Kevin Rushby Photograph: Kevin Rushby/PR

The barn is a beautiful old stone Cumbrian longhouse set on the side of a meadow close to Stonethwaite Beck. Downstairs is a kitchen with microwave, kettle and trestle tables; upstairs is a room with foam mattresses. Sadly there are no straw bales or lambs bleating in cribs: it's all very well-swept. We stroll to the pub, the Scafell Hotel, and sink pints of Jennings Bitter while reading the winners' board for the Borrowdale Fell Race, a 17-mile and 7,000ft marathon staged every August. Most years seem to have been won by a member of the Bland family – who also happen to own our camping barn. Later we meet the farmer, Stuart Bland, and he tells us that he was among the runners-up for several years because his brother Billy kept winning. Billy's record of two hours 34 minutes and 38 seconds has never been beaten. Stuart also tells us about the barn. "It was lived in until a few years ago. We think Dinah Hoggus must have been someone who had it a long time back."

That said, we can hardly complain of discomfort. I could have done with a logburner, but we make do with the electric radiator and sleep pretty well. Next morning we bemoan the recent, and permanent, closure of the shop in Rosthwaite – breakfast and lunch will finish all our food supplies.

The walk up to Dale Fell takes our minds off this logistical problem: first with all the old slate-mine workings, a fascinating bit of industrial history, then with marvellous views as we hit the ridge, heading west. Far away to our right, across a pack of fells, disappearing in mist, is the Solway Firth; to our left, Morecambe Bay with its wind farms.

By the time we drop down into the village of Buttermere, we are tired but happy. It's been a great day's walk. Wilf must have once again done 40 miles to our 10. We are ready to sample either of the two pubs. Our hopes, however, are dashed: both are shut. Recent floods in Cumbria have caused such a dearth of customers that midweek closures have come into force. Cragg Barn is 100 yards up the lane and looks cold. There are snow clouds overhead. Inside is a kitchen – sink and table – then an upstairs sleeping room with foam mattresses wrapped in industrial black plastic. No heating. This is definitely the spartan end of the camping barn experience, and the only food we have is a can of tripe and turkey in gravy, which Wilf refuses to share.

There is no mobile coverage so we find a phone box and ring for a taxi. Twenty quid to get back to Keswick for fish and chips; then 20 more to return. If you choose your barn for its proximity to a pub – and not all have that advantage – I recommend checking opening times.

The final day, and it's the big one. Snow clouds are hovering over Whiteless Breast, our first fell. The views are brief and brilliant: a few seconds of long vistas across sunlight dappled sea to the Isle of Man, swiftly gone. Wilf goes up the slope at top speed and disappears into the cloud, snapping wildly at the first snow flurries of his short life; flurries that are thickening into a white out. We reach the top of Whiteless Pike. I wonder if anyone ever called Mountain Rescue because their dog got lost. At that moment he reappears, only to pursue a snowflake down a steep slope then – horror – over the edge. We all stop.

"Is that a cliff?" asks Con. With visibility at a few metres, it's impossible to tell. The steep grassy bank is slick with ice and snow. I take a couple of tentative steps down. It would be very easy to lose control and slide. I think of that memorial in nearby Helvellyn to a faithful terrier who sat by his master's broken body for days after the accident. Is this how it happens? The dog kills you, then basks in heroic glory for ever after?

At that moment, Wilf scrabbles back over the brink, looking a bit shaken. He bounds back to us, but stays close after that.

Conditions are now quite testing. A rising cold wind is driving icy snow into our faces. We push on. This was definitely the rite of passage I had wanted for all my young hounds, but would I be up to it myself? Good trips always have that moment of uncertainty: should we go on? Is it safe? I was very glad we were not carrying the weight of a tent, just basic survival and sleeping bags. That is the real advantage of the barn system in winter. We pass our highest point of Crag Hill fell at 839m and, with the compass, get on to the correct ridge for our descent, dropping down into Borrowdale once again.

Writer's dog, Wilf, on a fell
Photograph: Kevin Rushby Photograph: Kevin Rushby/PR

One last challenge is rerouting due to a bridge being washed away, then we are on the path into Keswick where we meet a fellow walker and dog expert who looks Wilf up and down.

"Aren't you gorgeous? You're a fell terrier, aren't you?"

Previously I had always told people he was a bonsai. After all, we got him from a rescue centre on the simple understanding that he was canine.

"Oh yes," said our expert, leaning on her stick and still addressing herself to Wilf. "A cross of patterdale and jack russell like you is a fell terrier. You're a much sought-after breed, aren't you?"

Wilf seemed to prick up his ears. He was a breed. He was meant to be. We had covered 30 miles and climbed 7,500 feet, but he had done in excess of 100 miles, and, I reckon, scaled a Mount Everest in height. He trotted into Keswick with his tail up, an acknowledged fell terrier. The rest of us were perky also, but in a less demonstrative way. The rite of passage had worked. We were fell terriers, too.

Where to stay
The Skiddaw Hotel, Keswick, Cumbria (01768 772071). Dinner, bed and breakfast from £92 per night. For information on camping barns in the Lake District, sleeping from eight to 18, visit Barns cost from £5 per person per night. Dogs are allowed if the barn is occupied by only one group.
Further information
For more information on all Lake District activities, visit

Three long-distance walks for softies

A combination of winter mists and Arthurian mysticism make Foot Trails' A Knight's Tale an atmospheric winter option. Wend your way through the Somerset countryside and Glastonbury Tor, or pause in an ancient former feasting hall and imagine yourself in King Arthur's company. Then get stuck into some local grub yourself at the Queens Arms pub in Corton Denham.
01747 820626. Two nights self-guided walking from £235pp, half board with dinner and wine.

Inntravel (best known for its European walking holidays) is launching self-guided walking breaks, taking in some of Britain's most popular landscapes, from the Northumberland coast to the Peak District, the Highlands and Outer Hebrides. Accommodation is in a range of selected guesthouses, hotels and inns.
01653 617002. From £260pp B&B, inc picnic lunches, maps, notes and luggage transfers.

Hadrian's Wall
The full 84 miles of Hadrian's Wall Path climb through the arable land lining Tynedale to the Whin Sill escarpments of Housesteads, then on to the pastures of Cumbria, winding up on the salt flats below the Lakeland Fells. For a winter circuit, Ramblers CEO Tom Franklin recommends the section of the path with views eastwards from Cuddy Crags towards Sewingshields with a dusting of snow on the moors. Spend the night at Willowford Farm B&B, right on the wall.
Route: Willowford Farm: 01697 747962.


Kevin Rushby

The GuardianTramp

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