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Walking Across the Sinai Desert, Egypt

Hiking Posted on Thu, December 19, 2019 10:42PM

I’d first learnt of the Sinai Desert in the film ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. Lawrence had traveled across it in a week by camel as he and his 2 friends had sought to reach Cairo after their unit had captured Aqaba during WW1. The crossing had seemed a great adventure, could I attempt the same thing?

I had such adventurous thoughts about various places every few months. But usually the follow up bought bad news. The area was now out of bounds, occupied by some military or bandits, or otherwise unsafe. Or it was overrun with tourists, or paved, or in some way not at all what it used to be. But this time, this didn’t seem to be the case. The Sinai was open to tourists but people seemed to congregate, naturally enough, around the areas they could easily reach by road. Mt Sinai, Sharm el Sheik, Dahab, Nuweiba. Which left the rest of it’s vast area empty.

Added to this was that flights to Egypt were cheap at the time. I’d thought about it a few weeks then, having asked for time off from work and not been allowed it, one day when my job was more boring than usual it occurred to me that it was really important I did things I felt this strongly about. A job was something important, of course, being able to pay the rent was something important also, I could put the trip off until I was better able to cope with life’s stresses, but would I still feel like hiking a desert, alone, sleeping rough and taking my chances, when I was old enough to afford it all?

I’d quit that evening and a week later I was in Egypt, had caught a bus from Cairo to Abu Zenima and located, after much searching, the un-marked and un-distinguished track to Serabit El Khadim, 2 kms south of town.

I felt brave and frightened as I turned my back to the Red Sea and began walking inland. I was planning on following directions from a book published in 1975 by the explorer Burton Bernstein called ‘Sinai – The Great and Terrible Wilderness’. Now, over 20 years later, if was the most recent book published on the peninsula. It gave me 2 vague directions to follow; after I reached Serabit I would head south east to Mt. Sinai and St Catherine’s monastery, and from there it was east to Dahab. About 130 miles in all, following what was many scholars thought may have been the route of the Israelite’s as they wandered with Moses from Egypt to Israel.

I had 10 litres of water in my pack and enough food for 5 days. A 10 pack of pita breads, 5 oranges, 2 falafel sandwiches I’d bought in Suez, and 2 tetra packs of feta cheese. It was all I could fit in my rucksack alongside my sleeping bag, camera and a few clothes. I’d loose a little weight on the trek, I understood that, and if I didn’t find water in a few days day I’d be in real trouble, but I was willing to take the chance to experience this beautiful wilderness.

I walked, and walked. The land was flat, stony. I saw a herd of donkeys, a few camels, and a truck laden with rocks that rumbled along across the flat horizon towards a destination I was never to know. Late that evening I met an old man, Mohammed, who pointed at some mountains across the desert and said ‘Serabit, direct.’ It was dark, too dark to continue on, and Mohammed invited me to share his campfire. It was a humbling experience. He lived alone in a small, open sided tent that afforded scant shelter. His possessions were a few oil drums that he had filled with water, a couple more drums of dry supplies like macaroni, a bed role, and various cooking and digging tools. He earnt about £10 a month he said, combing the desert surface for amethyst. His daily diet was half a pitta bread for breakfast with tea, and a cup of macaroni for dinner. I pulled 2 oranges and the falafel sandwiches out of my rucksack and he brewed tea. We sat sipping, picking at the food and looking at the bright blanket of stars that covered us until the cold drove us into our sleeping bags.

Morning came and I was away over the virgin desert. An hour passed before I remembered Bernstein’s advice in his book;

“Stay on the truck or camel tracks, there are minefields left over from the Arab-Israeli war everywhere. Walk over broken ground and you’re probably safe.” This was as close to sheer panic as I’d ever come, and for the next few hours every step was accompanied by baited breath and fear before I once again rejoined the camel track and walked into Serabit El Khadim (which means ‘Heights of the Slaves’).

Serabit used to be the site of the Pharaoh’s turquoise mines in ancient times and here, a great many miles from anywhere, is an ancient temple set on top of a mountain. Unfortunately it’s structure does not match it’s location, only a few columns remain, and the 2 hour climb up the mountain, which I had to complete with a local guide because in the desert every mountain looks alike and there are no signs, was worth it only for the view. Back at the bottom I had tea with Sheikh Barakat, lord of Serabit, and judging by the many magazines he’d featured in which he showed me, he was very famous in France and Germany (he had also featured in Bernstein’s book). After tea, and trying to sell me a camel safari, he gracefully pointed to a mountain in the south east and advised,

“Go that way, around the mountain, then carry on for 3 more days and you’ll reach Mt. Sinai.” I asked him about the possibility of wild animals. “Maybe, but most of the animals that used to live here are now stuffed and on sale to tourists in Cairo,” he reassured me.

“And minefields?” I asked.

“Of course,” he shrugged, “be careful.”

Occasionally I followed 4 wheel drive tracks but rapidly found that most of them headed in the wrong direction for me and increasingly I had to cross un-broken sand. Some valleys were accessible only on foot, and only reached by climbing up or down sharp scree slopes, so they were empty of animals or people. You don’t use energy to climb around in such a harsh climate, where any exertion means taking on extra (scarce) food and water.

In my spare time – if it got too hot, I’d sit below a large rock to shelter, or later in the day, when I’d stopped walking and was just winding down before it got dark – I read the Old Testament. I’d never read it before and the desert seemed a good place to start. You never know what you might pick up from a book that you’d have missed had you not read it in a certain location. I looked forward to my reading sessions almost as much as I did eating an orange in the late morning, when I was hot but it was still full of the chill of the night.

Before I had arrived in the Sinai I’d visualised Bedouin encampments of large black tents but when I did find a settlement the Bedu were living in bare concrete block houses. Sheik Barakat had told me never to enter a Bedu settlement without clapping my hands and shouting a greeting.

“Everybody here has guns,” he had advised, “and they’re used to using them. And people often grow their own marijuana as they can ship it to Israel for a good price, and they also smoke it daily. We are good people, but it’s not a good idea to surprise us.”

So I clapped hands when I was about 30 metres from a settlement, waited until somebody appeared, and all was fine. I had an idea of where I was heading yet still thought it best to ask the way. But nobody could give me a firm idea of the route or how far it was to Mt. Sinai. Some said 300 kms, some 500. Many didn’t even know where Mt Sinai was, or perhaps they just didn’t understand what I was asking for, or they were so stoned they couldn’t think straight, which is entirely possible. Such is the explorers life when Arabic isn’t your first language and the people you’re speaking to have a strong dialect, a love of chilling out and no start point from which to fix their ideas about you on. I was doing something pretty unusual, after all, no wonder many of them had no idea what I was asking about.

I knew it could be no more than 100kms. Regardless of the lack of direction, a route that felt right was easy to find. I would often come to a confusing junction of tracks or wadis but a quick check of the compass always revealed the correct course. Or at least one that I felt right taking. As in the photo below, when I looked at the scene and thought ok, I’m going right up the middle of the valley to that low rise at the centre of the far horizon, and then from there we’ll re-evaluate!

I slept outside without trouble for 2 nights – it was cold, about 2 or 3 C, but otherwise fine – and hit an asphalt road 30 miles short of Mt. Sinai. A traffic sign pointed the way and I started to follow. The mountains were all around, the road zig zagged, and the traffic was almost non existent but it wasn’t satisfying hiking, and I was happy to reach Mt. Sinai on my 4th day where the first thing I did was to replenish my supplies.

I had found no water in the desert up until then, I’d filled up at the Sheikh’s house but there’d been nothing else. I tried to refill in the village of El Milga just near Mt Sinai but the water was filthy. I remembered Bernstein saying that he’d filled up over 20 years before from a spring next to a tree above St Catherine’s Monastery so after buying some more pita and cheese supplies I headed there.

St Catherine’s is built around the well of Moses and the sight of the Burning Bush, I found the spring high on a hill facing the monastery’s entrance. It was an ancient spring, first mentioned in a text from the 6th century AD. Some Bedu were sat around it. I drank deep, filled up my bottles and then set off up Mt. Sinai, getting views over the plain of Raha as I went. This is where the Israelites were supposed to have camped whilst waiting for Moses to receive the 10 Commandments, although should they have arrived a few thousand years later they could have dispensed with the tents and stayed in the sprawling, characterless, concrete ‘St. Catherine’s Tourist Village’ which nowadays blights the landscape.

It’s a fairly easy trail to the top of this 2,200 metre peak, which is handy because unsteady pilgrims as well as adventure tourists come to climb the sacred mountain every day. On the trail I fell in with 2 middle aged package tourists from England, one very quiet (his loud Hawaiian shirt spoke for him) and the other constantly chain-smoking as he whined about his asthma and the lack of quality restaurants in the desert. I foolishly took pity and began encouraging them up the hill, a task I abandoned when the chainsmoker lunched into a totally unprovoked and obscene attack on a group of innocent American pilgrims that we passed. This was a viscous onslaught, going something like;

“***Americans, you *** make me *** sick, you think you know *** everything, *** off and *** kill yourself you stupid ***.” Whilst I was trying to work out where all that had come from even the Egyptian guides present, who normally aren’t above abusing tourists (financially, not often verbally) stepped in and asked him to keep his language down. I quickened my step, moved away and cursed the flowery hooligans for letting the side down, and heard one final onslaught as the chainsmoker turned his attention to the “filthy *** Arabs” before I rounded a corner and became thankfully out of earshot.

On the summit I was greeted by the odd site of several makeshift wooden shelters built around a small chapel selling everything from fizzy drinks and chocolate to blankets and religious trinkets. A cynic might say that far from being a holy site this blatant example of consumerism was the work of Satan himself, but after a few hours in the biting wind up there my moral objections were overridden by an urge to get a hot cuppa inside of me. I know, I’m weak.

The place was certainly filled with a vocal spirituality that I’ve rarely felt elsewhere as the sun rose the next morning. Hundreds of people had slept alongside me on the summit in freezing temperatures (that’s why the Bedu rent the blankets!), many others had made the trek up in the pre-dawn darkness, and all formed into national or religious groups to welcome the day with hymns. First the Japanese sung, greeting the rising sun, they were joined by Christians and Muslims from all around the globe, including a bunch of Bulgarians who didn’t sing but hummed instead. I left soon after dawn, eager to escape the crowds and return to the solitude of the desert, and after a quick look in the monastery down below (it had to be quick, the crowds were shocking) I backtracked up the mountain trail for 10 minutes and then headed off east over the lowest ridge I could find, below the white chapel that dominated the middle skyline looking south east from the monastery.

Perhaps it’s best to be quite factual at this point, as I stumbled onto an amazing route which isn’t easy to find but is entirely worthwhile should anybody wish to follow it. A path ran down the other side of the ridge, leading north east, at the bottom of the slope I carried on over a wadi and a smaller rise with Mt. Sinai at my back until I reached another wadi. There was a stone Bedouin encampment down on my right, I walked past it in a south east direction, following a gorge for 1 km before coming to a well worn path that headed away east. Another junction and a wide wadi led me south east to a rise where I took an easterly path over another small rise in preference to carrying on downhill. From the top of this rise a large plain spread out below me, and way over in the eastern corner, about 2 kms distant, was a 4 wheel drive track running into a gorge.

I walked into the gorge 3 hours after I’d left the monastery and soon found that it was zig zagging every which way, east, north, south, and that the walls were too sheer to climb out of. My choices were to go back, or carry on, so I carried on.

I saw nobody all day, the car tracks finished as the gorge became even narrower, in places only 2 metres across and very rocky. It occurred to me that if I were to slip on one of the many boulders that lined the route and break something then life would get very bleak indeed, no-one was there to help at all. Once I had got over that realisation of being totally alone the silence became the most attractive part for me, I have never been somewhere this quiet before. The gorge blocked out all wind, there were no animals, at times as I walked I thought that I heard something but when I stopped I found that there was no sound, only my breathing, my blood and a distant hum (magnetism?). I passed pools of water but judging by the dead camels I found nearby on 2 occasions perhaps they weren’t very good drinking. I could always tell when I was nearing a pool actually as the stench of rotting flesh was strong in the otherwise clean air.

As dark fell I passed a small army camp occupied by 2 soldiers.

“Only 10 kms to Dahab!” they said and I was amazed, settling down in the sand a few kms further, my exhausted sleep made sweeter with the knowledge that a much spoken about ambition, that of crossing the Sinai from coast to coast, was about to be realised in just 6 days!

Alas, this journey had a sting in it’s tail. Encouraged by the soldiers news I ditched most of my water supplies, easing my pack weight by 7 kilos and saving just one bottle to last me what should have been an easy 2 hour hike. Wrong. After 3 hours the gorge widened out into a massive wadi, at least a km wide and stretching away into infinity, a Bedouin was working a small patch of irrigated land nearby, he said it was at least 45 kms to Dahab, and incensed by my gullibility I stormed off in double quick time, my anger preventing the clarity of thought which would have advised me to fill my bottles at the irrigation tank.

I saw nobody else again until evening. The cliffs no longer sheltered me from the sun but they did block out the wind, leaving the afternoon stiflingly hot and my impetuous throat parched. It would have been much quicker to walk down the middle of the wadi, but I wanted to keep to the winding main track. The threat of landmines was always ever present and now, nearer the coast and potential 1967 Israeli war invasion points, increasingly I found areas fenced off with barbed wire. These meant nothing though, flashfloods through the years have moved the mines totally, and now even Bedouins occasionally get blown up as they wander, tending their goats. Around dusk, just as I was entering into the ‘This valley is getting boring, I’m no longer enjoying it’ phase, I saw a car streaking across the horizon, and after a few hours I had reached the road. I’d covered 5 minutes on asphalt when I saw the sign, ‘Dahab, 10 kms’, and I finally reached the Gulf of Aqaba the following morning after sleeping on a sand dune just out of town, 7 days after I’d left the Red Sea coast.

Dahab means ‘gold’ in Arabic, which supposedly refers to the golden beach just south of town. Although the old testament refers to Dizahab as a place where the Israelites rested on their long trek to Canan.

I rested up by the beach for a few days. At first I was intensely satisfied. I had made a crossing of the Sinai Desert, what a grand journey! But then I began gazing at the brown mountains that flanked Dahab, they looked like the missed me. I sure already missed them. Their quiet, the sight of a flash of a green Bedu garden among their barren slopes, the stilted, honest interactions, the glorious evening light. Even the harsh midday heat, I missed it all. Somebody at a cafe told me of a trail that went from the Egyptian border all the way to Jerusalem. It would take 3 weeks to walk. Desert and barren mountains all the way. How could I refuse that!



The English Lake District – Great Dodds to Helvelyn (18km Walk and Swim)

Hiking, Runs Posted on Wed, December 04, 2019 07:59PM

This is a full day walk or run up to the summit ridge that links the Dodds peaks and Helvelyn, and then down again to Thirlmere reservoir, offering excellent views and the chance to swim in several places. It would be a great walk for those with dogs, they’ll be off the lead almost all the way. I used the Ordnance Survey Map 0L5 (The English Lakes, North Eastern Area), and its best to take that map; I think it might be frustrating to try to find your way without it.

First of all, here is a short film of the central part of this walk, shows you what to expect up there on the summit ridge.

You can see the summit of Clough Head and Great Dodds from the CCC campsite at Troutbeck. It dominates the horizon to the west. Below is the view from my tent. Clough Head is the peak on the right, you’ll be walking from that to the peak on the left, which is Great Dodds, and beyond. It’s possible to walk to the path that leads up to the summit ridge from the campsite, but it’s a very long slog, and I was told the ground is often very boggy, so I did it another way.

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I drove along the A66 for 5 minutes until I got to the B5322 road on my left, turned down that and drove on for 10 more minutes until I reached the small hamlet of Legburthwaite, marked on the map. It’s on your left, and just before you join the main A591 road. There’s a church hall here, and free parking for about 5 cars. The path up to the ridge leaves from here, so if you can get a space, perfect. After you park, walk up the small road which peters out when you see this stile. Go over the stile and head upwards.

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The views as you head ever upwards will look like this. On the map, you are heading for Sticks Pass Cairn.

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The photo above shows the scene about 10 minutes before you reach Sticks Pass. As you can see, the path is well trodden and easy to follow. When you reach the pass, look left, the broad red earth path you see will take you all the way to Clough Head, and then you’ll retrace your steps and pass Sticks Pass on the way to Helvelyn. The paths are very easy to follow, as long as you have the map for reference, the gradients are mostly slight now you are up high, the views are supurb on both sides and there’s no steep edges to fear. Here are some views.

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The view from Clough Head, looking down onto the plain that the Troutbeck Campsite is located on, is above. From here, you’re just going to retrace your steps along to Sticks Pass. When you get back to the pass, the view looks like this.

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As you can see, the ridge is wide, and the path easy to see. You’ll have no issues following it. And the views just keep on appearing…

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The view above is from the peak known as Lower Man, looking at the route on to Helvelyn. To get here from Clough Head took me about 2 hours. You’ll have to descend from this point as well, so head up to Helvelyn peak if you wish, enjoy the great views, its an easy wide path, as you can see, no chance of getting lost, and then come back down to this Lower Man peak from where, if you look down, the view will be like this.

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The path here is well trodden, you’ll have no problem following it, and it leads straight down to the A591 road in about half an hour. It’s not that steep, just a long plod, and when you near the bottom you’ll have Helvelyn Gill on your right, a small stream which forms into a waterfall just above the wooden footbridge that your path will take you across. You can bathe here. It’s a small pool, only room for 2 or 3 at most, and not deep, but not too cold either, and very refreshing after that very long hike.

The path ends at a public carpark next to Highpark Wood. Cross the main road, then turn right, walk along the grassy verge to the layby on the opposite side of the road and find a noticeboard, which tells of a path from here leading down to Thirlmere Reservoir. Now, you’re not meant to swim in reservoirs, there may be underwater obstructions, but faced with a scene like the one below, I must say, it was so enticing that I did indeed go for a dip. It was extremely cold so I kept near the shore for safety, in case I cramped up. The water is very clear. I kept an eye out for any outflow pipes, which I never saw, which might have caused me trouble. I saw a few other people taking a dip too.

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The path onwards, along the shoreline, is marked on the ordnance survey map in red. You go as far as the hill of Great How, then skirt it on its right hand side, and eventually, after about 20 minutes, you reach the main road again, from where you can cross and double back about 500 metres along the verge to where you parked your car. The views as you go will be like this.

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The English Lake District – The Mosedale Horseshoe (17km Walk and Wild Swim)

Canoeing & Swimming, Hiking Posted on Wed, December 04, 2019 07:55PM

This is a circular route, and some would say one of the very best in the Lake District. I used the Ordnance Survey Map 0L6 (The English Lakes, South Western Area) to guide me, it only shows the start and finish points of the walk but once you’re up there, the route is very clear.

I set off from the Ravenglass Camping and Caravanning Club campsite where I was staying for a week and drove to Wastwater, and the free car park at Overbeck Bridge. It was a 20 minute drive at most. From here the path begins, and climbs immediately up the steep slopes of Yewbarrow. As you near the top of Yewbarrow there is some lively scrambling to be done, not for those a little scared of heights or unsure of their ability on rock. It’s not full on climbing, not at all, but the path is unclear in many places and there is no choice but to go up, and once you’re up you look back and wonder how on earth you made it. Here are some photos of the lake, and the initial climb.

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Above is the view of Sca Fell (right) and Sca Fell Pike (left) from the top of Yewbarrow. From this point you are going to head north, the path is easy to follow, once you get down from Yewbarrow, which entails another difficult scramble. At the bottom I had another one of those moments when I looked back and thought, how on earth did I get down that?

Basically, your route from Yewbarrow takes you on a very well trodden path to Dore Head, then Red Pike (826 mts), Black Crag (828 mts) and Pillar (892 mts), all on the same path that curls around to your right.

Below are some snaps of views en route to Pillar.

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From the summit of Pillar, the route heads back in the direction of Sca Fell. It’s steep here, you keep the metal chain/railing on your left. Actually, no chance of getting lost here, the path is very well trodden and if you go too far left you’ll fall off the edge! The path will take you down, eventually, to a saddle, from where another path goes on straight up to Kirk Fell, whilst the one I took goes down to Wasdale Head. Here are some snaps of the route…

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From Wasdale Head its a half hour walk along the road to the Overbeck Bridge car park. No hassle, the views are nice and the road isn’t that busy. Some people park at Wasdale Head and do the walk the other way round, but I think my way is better as there is a nice beach at Overbeck so you can have a decent swim at the end of this very long, and strenuous (at least, the scramble up Yewbarrow is) walk. The water of Wastwater is very cold, but also very soothing for achey muscles.

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The English Lake District – Loughrigg Fell (9km Walk and Grassmere Swim)

Canoeing & Swimming, Hiking Posted on Wed, December 04, 2019 07:49PM

This is a full day walk or run, offering excellent views of Rydal Water and Grassmere, and the chance to swim safely in both the lakes. I used the Ordnance Survey Map 0L7 (The English Lakes, South Eastern Area), and its best to take that map; I think it might be frustrating to try to find your way without it.

Leave the Windermere Marina Village and drive up the main A591 to Ambleside. Pass through the village and head on towards Rydal, but just before you turn the bend into the village, look for the old stone bridge on your left. This is marked up as Pelter Bridge on your map. If you drive over this bridge, then take the right turn, you’ll come to a car park.

It used to be free to park here but in 2013 the local toerags, sorry, council, put a pay and display machine in. Shame.

The car park gets full quickly, so arrive early in the day to be sure of a space. It’s an ideal place to park though, just 10 minutes walk from your car and you’ll start getting views of Rydal Water.

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When you first see the lake, you’ll have the choice of 2 pathways, the upper path and the lower. I chose to take the upper path on the way in, and the lower path on the way out, later in the day, after my swims. I came to a cave after about 15 minutes walk and then the path led on, always very clear and easy to follow all the way to Grassmere, which was a further 15 minutes walk.

If you walk this path on a clear day, as I did, you’ll be rewarded with one of the finest views, anywhere. That’s my opinion, anyway, Grassmere is a beautiful lake, no doubt about it. The path keeps level here, it’s known as the Loughrigg Terrace; you can walk for a while longer, enjoying the lake as it reveals more and more of itself.

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As you approach the forest, a path climbs up on your left, if you follow it, this will take you to the summit of Loughrigg. It’s a stiff climb, always on a clear to follow path though.

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The view above from the summit of Loughrigg. It’s a large summit, and from the central, highest point, marked with a cairn, you can see Lake Windermere very clearly.

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From the peak I headed back down towards the shore of Grassmere, to a point on the map that is marked ‘Landing Stages’ between ‘Dale End’ and ‘The Lea’. It took me about half hour to descend.

Grassmere is a warm lake, it’s shallow so the sun can heat the water quickly. I could splash about in it for a good 10 minutes before I felt cold enough to get out. It really was lovely swimming, although not secluded. On any clear day, this route is packed with hikers, and for good reason, the scenery is terrific.

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After the swim I walked back along the lakeshore, towards Rydal. This time I was taking the lower path.

Rydal Water beach is shingle, and easy to walk on. Rydal is warmer than Grassmere, and a real delight to swim in. The entry and exit point was firm and easy to walk on (no sharp stones here). The spot I liked was the bit of beach nearest to Little Isle, which is the island shown below, shrouded with trees. Out of all the lakes and rivers I swam in during my 6 weeks in the Lake District, I’d say that Rydal was definitely the warmest lake, and the easiest to swim in.

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And then you’re back on the path, heading away from Rydal, stopping one last time perhaps for a final look at this magnificent scenery, before descending to Pelter Bridge car park.

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