Early December and against all the odds, I was going skiing. Resorts across France, Austria and Italy were closed; Switzerland was off-limits because of quarantine requirements; the US and Canadian borders were shut to foreigners. So here I was, alone, in an abandoned lead mine in the north of England. There were no lifts in sight; in fact, I couldn’t even see any snow — just grey spoil heaps and a few old stone buildings under thick winter cloud. I locked the car, strapped skis and boots to the outside of my rucksack, and set off up the hill.
I was in the Lake District, just outside the village of Glenridding, a honeypot which, in ordinary times, bustles with tourists who come for the walks, the views, and to take rides on the vintage steamers that criss-cross Ullswater. What few visitors realise is that hidden in the hills above the village is England’s oldest and highest ski club.
In fact, even many passionate English skiers don’t know there are ski lifts in their own country. Though the English upper classes played a celebrated role in the development of skiing in the Alps, the long history of domestic skiing has remained far less well-known.
The venerable Ski Club of Great Britain, for example, hosts an extensive guide to resorts on its website — detailing destinations from Andorra and Chile to Romania and Russia — but neglects to mention any in England. In fact, there are four small ski areas with permanent lifts, in the neighbouring northern counties of Cumbria, County Durham and Northumberland. Thanks to restrictions on foreign travel, this could — provided the current lockdown ends in time — be the year the secret finally gets out.
The path climbed steeply above the mine workings and before long there were patches of snow and then large drifts. Occasionally the clouds would open slightly, allowing tunnel-vision glimpses of the lake or of distant fell-sides cloaked in white. After almost an hour, the path gave out, beside the ruins of an old chimney stack, on a windy, cold and featureless mountainside where I was beginning to feel rather lonely.
Thankfully, the ground was now pretty much covered in snow, revealing footprints that led away to the west. I followed, up into the clouds, an indistinct world of snow and silence, until I crested a small ridge to see a remarkable sight — a Poma lift, exactly as you might find in St Anton, Méribel or Whistler, breaking the stillness with a rhythmic clanking, and riding it, the first people I had seen all day.
It was entirely familiar and yet peculiarly out of place — normally lifts begin beside the chalets and bars at the base of a ski resort. Normally they are surrounded by hubbub and commercial activity. This one was completely alone, on the side of a Lake District fell, running from nowhere to nowhere. I went over to say hello, feeling rather like an explorer arriving out of the mist and against the odds at an Antarctic research base, only to be greeted with the bluff nonchalance of the regular northern skiers.
“Well, the walk up keeps you fit,” said Gerard Unthank, a retired chartered surveyor from Carlisle who has been skiing here for 25 years. He is now 80 but comes whenever there is enough snow to run the lift, while also skiing regularly in the Alps. “Normally it’s Val d’Isère at the start and end of the season, Courchevel and the Trois Vallées in the middle.” It strikes me that if Courchevel’s designer stores and wide, immaculately groomed slopes are at one end of the skiing continuum, this is the very furthest opposite. “Well, that’s right,” he says with a chuckle. “But if you’re an enthusiast, you look for snow anywhere!”
The lift rises about 110 vertical metres, almost to the 883-metre summit of Raise, a peak just along the ridge from the more famous Helvellyn. There’s a map showing a dozen named runs but don’t expect pistes in the conventional sense — there is no grooming machine to smooth the slopes. On this particular day, conditions could be charitably described as “mixed”, the snow a few feet deep in places though with frequent patches where grass and moss showed through (thankfully wet enough for skis to slide over). But it was still skiing — a little miracle given the outlook from the car park — and I lapped the lift happily for several hours, stopping from time to time to chat to the handful of other skiers.
There was Stuart Sharp, a snowboarder who has been coming for 30 years, in the early days milking the cows on his farm before hiking up to run the lift as a volunteer. Helping him was Bernhard Ressel, a double glazing salesman from Cheshire, who had got into skiing in the 1970s after a friend bought some old wooden skis in an auction. “We didn’t know much about it so we just put on normal walking boots and went looking for snow up Hardknott Pass [England’s steepest road],” he said. “We found some — and we nearly broke our legs.” They later took to running their own homemade ski lift powered by a Mini Traveller, which they sawed in half and parked on a hill near Macclesfield.
Dave Marshall, an engineer, had come up for the weekend after seeing snow in the forecast – driving five hours to get here from the flatlands of Suffolk. “I resigned myself to the fact I’m not going to be going to France or Austria this winter,” he said, “so I joined the club over the summer thinking this might be an alternative.”
All the regulars were at pains to point out that conditions can be way better — on a good day you can ski all the way down to the car park; on an epic one you can make it to the warm embrace of the Travellers Rest, a homely pub on the edge of Glenridding. “There’s been times when it’s taken two hours to dig the lift out from the snow in the morning and that’s with a lot of people,” says Mike Sweeney, the club president. “It’s a full-body work-out up at the ski club — you walk up, you dig and you ski.”
And although the slopes might not rival those of Courchevel, there is a joyful, eccentric fanaticism about the place — like returning to the early, amateur days of skiing in the Alps. It remains very much a club, not for profit and with all the work done by volunteers; even if you just come for a day you buy a “temporary membership” rather than just a lift ticket.
Every summer many of the 320 members join work parties, carrying up supplies on their backs and fixing the wooden fences that stop precious snow blowing away. Even the neat little clubhouse with its kettle and coffee cups was built by members; the “powder room” added in 2011 contains what the club boasts is “believed to be the second-highest flushing toilet in England”.
Yet for all its down-to-earth charm, there is an illustrious history here. The club was founded in 1936 — when Courchevel and Verbier were nothing but cow pasture. In the early days club members roamed the Lake District looking for snow, co-opting AA and RAC patrolmen as weather watchers. One spring Sunday in 1946, a group had been disappointed by poor conditions but happened to look south from the summit of Stybarrow Dodd where, in the words of Penrith garage owner Frank Kieser, “to our amazement we saw the most beautiful drift covering the whole north face of Raise”.
They returned to investigate the following week, finding a north-facing bowl that retained snow far later than the surrounding fells, and which would become the club’s home. A rope tow, the first in the UK, was installed in 1954; the current Poma was fitted in the hot, dry summer of 1989. Concrete for the pylon bases was mixed using water carried up by members from a bog below in a variety of receptacles, including a pair of knotted overtrousers.
That night I stayed at the Yan, five miles to the south, a 17th century barn that opened in 2019 as a bistro with seven bedrooms and a subtle ski-chalet vibe. Jess and Will Manley had spent years managing chalets in the French resort of Sainte Foy and were planning to start their own hotel in the Alps until their parents suggested they return to do it in England instead. “I think the Lakes was desperate for something more chalet-inspired,” said Jess, a keen ski tourer, though it’s more about the bright design, cosy bedrooms and casual style of service than old skis and cowbells on the wall. My dinner could not have been more local — shepherd’s pie with slow-braised Herdwick lamb, and a pint from the Grasmere Brewery, a mile down the road.
In the morning, I drove east, out of the Lake District and into the high, exposed moorland of the North Pennines. I was looking for Yad Moss, England’s longest ski lift and, after a Google Maps detour up a dead-end agricultural track, I eventually spotted its machinery on a bleak bit of hillside just off a lonely B-road.
There was no ticket office, no café, no gift shop, not even a sign, but I parked in a layby, changed into ski gear on the windy Tarmac and jumped over the fence for the short soggy walk up to the lift. It had been running the previous day but now the snow was thawing, the lift was closed and the two little huts were boarded up. I was preparing to turn around when two figures coalesced from the murk — skiers, who descended towards me on a thin snake of snow amid a sea of mud and rough turf.
England may lack reliable snow and proper mountains but here was proof of a stoic devotion to the sport that more serious skiing nations would struggle to match. On a remote moor, in bad weather, with barely any snow and a lift that wasn’t even running, people were skiing. They turned out to be Alan and Sarah Smith, local government officials on the verge of retirement whose planned trip to Tignes that week had been thwarted by the pandemic — though they seemed not to mind a bit.
“We know loads of people who won’t ski unless there’s 300km of pistes and 50 lifts, but we’ve driven to Cairngorm in Scotland before — six hours, 300 miles — to hike up and ski 200-metre patches of snow,” said Alan, beaming. “We are easily pleased.”
Their touring skis (with skins and special bindings enabling them to climb uphill) were ex-rentals brought back from Revelstoke, the deep-powder mecca in British Columbia, but they seemed to be coping well enough with the “mud ice” conditions here. “We just love being in the mountains and there’s something fantastic about skiing in your home country,” said Sarah. “The views here are lovely by the way.” She gestured at the thick bank of cloud.
There has been lots of snow since then — I can’t help but monitor the frozen webcams from my work-from-home screen in London — but England’s lockdown has meant it has gone unskied. The Lake District Ski Club has managed to open on only two days so far this winter; the lift hasn’t run again since my visit (although that is still two days more than the lifts in Courchevel). But English skiing is all about optimism and there is still a chance: there has often been skiing in April and occasionally May. “And in 1963,” says Mike Sweeney, “they were skiing on Raise in June.” Fingers crossed.
Tom Robbins is the FT’s Travel Editor
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