The Priest’s Hole cave is hardly a secret - it’s probably one of the best documented and well-reported wild sleeping spots in England. But what’s amazing is that it’s still one of the best. Up until a few months ago I wouldn’t have been able to tell you that. But at the start of the summer I finally got the chance to pack a bivvy bag and head up to it myself. Here’s a picture-led guide with a few linking thoughts describing what I found.
Looking east across Dovedale from near the summit of Dove Crag. The Priest’s Hole cave sits amongst the darkened section of crag in the centre top right of the picture.
The main event: Priest’s Hole is little more than a slender oval gouge in the rocky cliff face, but the man-made wall and the natural overhang above it make for an excellent bivvy spot.
First though it’s probably worth discussing why you’d
want to sleep in a shallow cave most of the way up a near-800m Lake District fell. First, there’s peer pressure. And I mean that in a good way. Visiting the Priest’s Hole has become a bit of a rite of passage in outdoor circles, and as one of the best-loved natural features in what’s almost-certainly the most popular British National Park with mountains in it, you can see why. Secondly, there’s the fact that it really does offer a fantastic experience. On the right night (ie. warm and still and clear) the views east from the cave are amongst some of the most pleasing in Lakeland, and the simple feeling of laying out your sleeping gear in an entirely natural shelter is as satisfying at the time as it is hard to communicate afterwards. Thirdly: it’s accessible. Park up at Brothers Water (just south of Ullswater in the north-east Lakes) and it’s a simple 4-5km walk up the length of Dovedale until - a little below the col between Dove Crag and Hart Crag - you’ll be able to break off left and scramble up to this neat and appealing like cave. It’s not a strenuous walk, but it is a pretty one, and just challenging enough to give a taste of the remote and feel like an adventure away from the popular tourist towns below.
My bed for the night: with such effective protection from rain the bivvy bag isn’t strictly necessary, but it helps keep the warmth in (it can be unexpectedly cold outside of a tent, even on a mild summer’s night).
An attempt at a panorama from inside the cave. As you can see, it’s barely five metres in depth, but the views out towards the Lake District’s far eastern fells are superb.
Equally, this is not a tall cave. I’m only 5’7” and the low-hanging ceiling means most of us will have to stoop in all but the tallest sections of the entrance.
The author. I hope I look as happy as I felt at the time - this really is one of the most satisfying places I’ve found to sleep anywhere ever.
If you like the look of the above pictures (not the one of me, obviously) there’s a few points I’d like to make that I just hadn’t picked up on from other reports from the Priest’s Hole. The first is that the cave really is
so, so tiny. It doesn’t come across brilliantly in most photography, but the images you see from inside the cave looking out? That’s as deep as it goes. You’ll find a few strips of flattish ground variously dotted around the place, but fitting more than six people in here would be a real struggle and anyone above that number probably isn’t going to have the comfiest of nights. The second is that there’s no easy way to gather water around the cave’s mouth, so you’ll have to scramble down to the flattish ground around Houndshope Cove then filter and treat some from the groundwater you can find about the place. The third is that the drop-off from directly outside the cave is pretty steep, and the cliffs immediately past it are entirely sheer… so maybe don’t visit if you’re an active sleepwalker. The fourth is that there’s an awful lot of kit and gear and “stuff” to trawl through hidden on the back “shelf” of the hollow. Think of it more like a bothy and it begins to make sense. On my visit I found useable gas canisters, tins of beans, packets of soup, bits of tarp, snap-lid containers, tea lights and plenty of other handy junk. Surprising in a place that, when empty, still seems like a wild and lonesome spot.
Sun sets on the gorgeousness of fells that rise between Haweswater and Ullswater. This really is a very special place to fall asleep.
“Aww cave friend”... you should expect other guests to turn up at 23:30, shine a headtorch in your face and then (hopefully) offer you wine, whisky and chat. It’s unlikely you’ll be alone on a fine night in the Priest’s Hole, but meeting like-minded outdoors people is all part of the craic.
Outside of wind-swept wild camps when you’re woken up by a facefull of tent fabric every three minutes or so, I always sleep well in the outdoors. Maybe it’s the volume of clean, fresh air or the natural sounds and light. Whatever it is, I still can’t remember a more blissful morning than the one I woke to in the Priest’s Hole. The softness of the hazy, golden blue skies, the gentle lapping of a warm wind, the views out across the quiet, far east fells… it was all pretty much nearing the sublime. I’d highly recommend a visit before winter is with us again. Not that cold weather would make a visit impossible, or even particularly difficult. In fact, I’d better put that in the diary now...
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Until next time.
Dan Aspel is a journalist and Mountain Leader. You can find him at www.danaspel.com
Visit www.lifesystems.co.uk to find a host of kit and equipment for your next overnight adventure.