Graham Uney, founder of Graham Uney Mountaineering, moved to the Lake District in 2015 for an 'exciting' job on Helvellyn. Brought up in the flatlands of Hull, he has since lived and worked in all corners of the UK, coming to his present home on a roundabout route via London, Strathpeffer, Hesket Newmarket, Carlisle, Swindon, Hitchin, the Cambridgeshire Fens, Shropshire, Suffolk, Canna, Shetland, and Snowdonia. After all that, what took him to the Lowther Valley; and why (apart from sheer exhaustion) might he never want to move again?
I was really quite happy living in Snowdonia after trying just about everywhere else in the country. I didn't anticipate moving back to the Lake District. Then a job was advertised with the Lake District National Park Authority. It was a job I'd heard of years before, and it had always seemed to me to be such a wildly exciting thing to do as a mountaineer, that when the ad popped up all over social media in 2014 for a new Fell Top Assessor for Lake District Weatherline I decided to go for it. My application was successful, and I started assessing snow conditions on Helvellyn that winter. The only issue was, I still lived in Snowdonia.
I struggled through that first winter as Fell Top Assessor commuting from my little cottage just outside of Bala on the flanks of Arenig Fawr, using holiday lets in Cumbria for when I was on duty on Helvellyn. The following winter, as we neared the start of my second season working for Weatherline, I knew that I'd have to move to Cumbria just to stay sane.
We live in one of the quieter parts of the Lake District, the village of Bampton in the Lowther Valley. Tucked into the far east of the national Park, it's a stunningly beautiful place to live and work - but there are obvious downsides. Bampton has a tiny shop (which is in the process of changing hands), and a village hall, and up until recently that was about all. For all other amenities the nearest towns are Penrith (11 miles) and Kendal (22 miles), but we do have a little Co-op and a good fish and chip shop in Shap (6 miles). There is no public bus service at all, other than a once-a-week bus to Penrith which gives you about an hour in town before it brings you back again.
This is not the place to be if you like to be able to walk from your front door to get to shops, dentist, doctors, cinema, restaurant, takeaway and the rest. It's nigh on impossible to get workmen to visit to do any work around the house, other than we do have a good local plumber, and the nearest mechanic is in Shap for when your car breaks down.
It's a stunningly beautiful place to live and work, but there are obvious downsides
There is, however, a great feeling of community here. As a community we've recently bought the village pub and it has reopened as of last October following a period of closure going back to well before I moved here. The Mardale Inn is now a real hub, not only for village life, but it's becoming known among visitors as a great place for food and beer after a hill walk.
I live just up the valley from Bampton, right at the very heart of the RSPB's Wild Haweswater reserve where they are fully embracing rewilding on a landscape scale. It's an exciting time to be in this part of the Lake District, surrounded by nature, and surrounded by people who care about what this landscape looks like now, and who know what it will be like if we let rewilding occur.
As is common throughout most of our beautiful parts of the country, it's very difficult to buy or rent property here. Houses do come on the market, but they are often bought by non-locals for prices that are way above what most locals could afford. A fair few of these are holiday properties, which can be a positive thing for tourism, but some of the properties are used exclusively by the owners who visit only once or twice a year, their Lake District houses being empty for most of the year. This makes it really difficult for young families to gain a foothold here, which is not a good thing.
This is not to say that 'incomers' buying property in Bampton is a negative thing. I'm an incomer. Those who have moved here have had a really positive impact on village life. The buying of the community pub was definitely made a lot easier thanks to the incomers who live here. My own business brings a fair amount to the local economy, with my clients staying in local B&Bs and holiday lets. We use the Bampton Memorial Hall as a classroom for a lot of my courses, and I'm hopeful that the café at the village shop will soon reopen so that I can also meet my clients there for a pre-walk chat over coffee.
In winter the one road in and out of the valley (Askham and Penrith going northwards, and Shap going south-east) can become impassable with snow. This doesn't happen often, but if it does, nobody is going to go anywhere. The valley bottom floods in a number of places too, again becoming impassable. When this happens the run-off from the river is usually pretty dramatic and quick, but it might mean that you just can't drive anywhere for a day or two. Again, it's a fairly rare occurrence, but most winters you can expect to be blocked in for a day or two.
It's quiet, yet easily accessible. My clients can get here easier than most other parts of the Lake District. Why would I ever want to leave?
For me the positives easily outweigh the negatives. I can walk from my back garden gate straight out onto the open fell. From my gate it's open access land under the CRoW act, and I can easily explore the whole of the Far Eastern Fells right from my door without having to drive anywhere. This means that I can meet my clients in the village hall, or the village car park, then run a full course in my own back yard, so to speak. Often, my commute to work involves walking 40 metres from my front door to the village car park where I meet my clients.
The hills in 'my backyard' include the Wainwrights, High Street, Mardale Ill Bell, Harter Fell, Kidsty Pike, High Raise, Branstree, and Loadpot Hill. This is gold standard terrain for anyone wanting to learn and practice the skills to become a Mountain Leader, or Hill and Moorland Leader, which is fortunate because these are exactly the courses that pay my bills.
For my rock climbing courses I've got Gouther Crags in Swindale within walkable distance, and some lovely esoteric little gems close by too that are perfect for a quiet day at the crag when I'm instructing. And it's pretty easy to get into other parts of the Lake District from here. I can be in Borrowdale in 45 minutes, and Langdale in just over an hour.
I no longer work as the Fell Top Assessor on Helvellyn, but I still enjoy winter climbing up there. Glenridding is about 40 minutes drive from home. Indoor climbing walls in reasonable reach vary from tiny (Penrith) to excellent (Keswick Climbing Wall, and the Kong Wall, plus Kendal Wall just 22 miles to the south).
Being in the Eastern part of the National Park has other benefits too. I travel to work in other parts of the country relatively regularly. I'm only 10 minutes from Junction 39 on the M6, and as such can get to Arrochar in under 3 hours, Aviemore in just over 4 hours, and Capel Curig in 3 hours. I also work regularly in the Yorkshire Dales, which is just a half hour commute if I want to be in the Howgill Fells.
The one thing that would make a huge difference to my life and work here would be a good, usable bus service. I guess most of us who live in remote places could say the same. I'd love to be able to meet my clients at the village hall, knowing that the majority of them had caught a bus from the train station in Penrith to arrive in Bampton. Sadly, I can't see this happening anytime soon. A local campsite and a bunkhouse would be amazing too, so if any of my enterprising farming neighbours are reading this…?
Will I stay in Bampton? Over the last several years my business has become so intertwined with the hills and moors on my doorstep that it would be very difficult to leave. I love living here. It's beautiful, quiet, remote, and yet easily accessible – my clients can get here easier than they can get to most other parts of the Lake District. Why would I ever want to leave?
I guess the next question is, is it for you? Some of the people looking to move to this area in the Lake District initially move to Penrith, Shap or the Eden Valley until a property becomes available in Bampton. This makes sense, and will help you become part of the landscape and community in the meantime. If you're happy living a fairly remote life, and your main driver for living in the hills is access to stunning hillwalking right from your door, then our area could be for you.
Check out these hill routes in the far east Lakes