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Mountain Leader Nicola Merrett


(5 minute read)

Working with Channel 4, the unexpected perks of poor visibility, and the phenomenon of rutting deer echoes amplified through the steep-sided valleys every autumn… We caught up with mountain leader and Lake District local Nicola Merrett – who guides Another Place guests on hikes – to hear how spending time up high in the fells helps us leave it all behind at ground level.

imagine of mountain sides

I was born in South Lakes, and my dad and I did a lot of deer stalking on the Shap fells when I was young. I was brought up in a pair of old tweed breeches and hand-me-down walking boots, a bit of Kendal mint cake, an apple and a stinky old Barbour jacket – out stalking deer over heather and bog land. This put me off the fells for life…or so I thought! Life moved on, I got married, had kids, a ‘normal job’, and was an avid gym goer…

My life turned upside down as I re-discovered the fells, and realised how fabulous it is to inspire others to find a new love of the outdoors too. I became a Nordic walking instructor, ran regular walks with clients, and took it upon myself to qualify as a Mountain Leader – all as a result of rekindling my passion for the outdoors.

image of walker in a field

I realised my life has gone full circle. I now take people to see the famous Martindale red deer join the rut; the same deer I used to go looking for with my dad. And, when I go out on my own recce walks, I just find it so magical when I see the deer on Place Fell, I just sit and watch. They’re very inquisitive and come up towards me; and it takes me back to those early days with my dad.

I must have been about four when I climbed my first mountain. It was just a part of life. But a big thing I say to my walkers now is yes, it’s lovely to tick off a summit – but it’s also about what you’ve learned, seen and felt along the way. It’s the journey, it’s about exploring. I teach people to navigate off the beaten track, to find little hidden treasures in the valleys and on the fell tops.

image of deers

“Yes, it’s lovely to tick off a summit – but it’s also about what you’ve learned, seen and felt along the way… I teach people to navigate off the beaten track, to find little hidden treasures in the valleys and on the fell tops.”

The biggest pull of mountain hiking for me is that it’s a good way to disconnect from life. Once you go over a certain elevation, you can leave those nagging thoughts behind. We all have so much going on in our lives, whether it’s positive or negative, mental or physical. I say on every walk I guide, ‘Leave it behind.’ Put your phone on airplane mode, and don’t worry about fitting in your 10,000 steps, or reaching the summit. What really matters is how you feel in your head.

If you’re struggling physically, I help people to understand how to move well in the fells. It doesn’t have to be fast, it just has to be efficient, comfortable, with good posture and safe footwork – no stomping out too fast – avoiding injuries. We really try to help people manage their bodies over the slightly tricky terrain that we may encounter on the typical Lake District terrain.

Images of a sunset

Exposure up on high ridges or steep drops off the paths can catch hikers off guard. For walkers new to the Lakes, some valley paths can be extremely tricky and rocky and require caution, while some mountain tops are relatively easy to navigate, and vice versa – you just put one foot in front of the other and make your way up. If you decide to take a guide, they can tailor routes to your ability and the changeable weather on the day while preparing you for the terrain ahead.

I worked with Channel 4, Sandi Toksvig and Judi Love last autumn, filming the deer rut in the Martindale Valley, owned by Dalemain estates [for Extraordinary Escapes – which has just aired]. The deer congregate from all around the area in the Martindale Valley to rut in late September and October, when the stags fight and compete to establish hierarchy before mating. It’s famous in this location in particular – just across the lake from Another Place – because the steep-sided valleys face each other in such a way that the noise of the rut echoes and is amplified around the area and surrounds you. It’s magical and extraordinary. The sound can last all day, but during the main season it’s most prolific between six and ten in the morning, and again between six and ten in the evening.

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“The steep-sided valleys face each other in such a way that the noise of the rut echoes and is amplified around the area and surrounds you. It’s magical and extraordinary.”

Angle Tarn Pikes is a good beginner walk for people new to the Lakes. It’s relatively easy as a fell walk to get to, Angle Tarn itself is one of the most photographed tarns in the Lakes, you get a fantastic 360° view and can look across to the Helvellynmountain range. And you get to tick off a Wainwright peak. With most of my walks, I recommend starting in Patterdale or Glenridding at the head of Ullswater – a 10-15-minute drive from Another Place, then you can start your hike right in the heart of the mountains.

With my company Hiking Highs, we also offer bespoke trails and tailor the walk for the participants – factoring in the weather, terrain and people’s ability and agility. If the group wants to tick off Helvellyn, Scafell Pike or High Street, we’ll do our utmost to get them to their chosen summits. For those wanting to walk on snowy mountains, we also have winter guides in our team.

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Sometimes we’re on the fells in the evening, or even in the middle of the night. If you’ve got a fear of heights, a cloudy day or darkness can actually allow you to just walk and relax. You just focus on what’s in front of you on the path, and adjust accordingly. It’s really good for balance, for proprioception – you just see and feel different things, and start to feel more connected to the ground’s energy beneath you.

I always encourage people to hike early morning too – setting off in the dark, the light comes and excitement builds as dawn breaks and the views unveil themselves. In spring especially, you sometimes have clouds that at first are sitting on the lake, then follow you up the mountain. You might be engulfed in that cloud before you emerge at the summit to see the clouds below you and just the tops of the other mountains surrounding you. Then the breeze might come and roll that cloud over those peaks, almost like someone’s dragging cotton wool over them. Even if it’s a wet morning, the light falling is still pretty special to witness. You still have an adventure and you laugh about it; you just take the day and the weather as it comes!

image of people celebrating a hike

The Hiking Highs team is happy to be flexible; guests can block out two or three days when they’ve booked their stay, and then choose the best weather day as the week approaches. I have lots of other work with planning for my navigation courses etc in the mix, so I can flex around the weather to help people get the most out of their time at Another Place.

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Lake District walking tours with Nicola and Hiking Highs

Guests of Another Place can join Nicola on one of her guided walks, from the valleys to the mountain summits; some classics and some off the beaten track. Or work with her to create your own bespoke day out in the fells, with a day of hiking tailored to you. Nicola and her team also take groups out on Scafell Pike, Angle Tarn Pikes, the Helvellyn range and High Street Ridgeline which guests can see from Another Place.

Find out more

Red Deer Rut hike

One of Nicky’s favourite guided hikes includes watching and listening to the Martidale red deer rut, these hikes are available through autumn. This is the oldest Red Deer herd in England, they have been in these valleys owned by Dalemain Estates for over 300 years.  The bellows of the Red Deer Stags echo around the valleys to the east of Ullswater, Boredale, Martindale, Bannerdale and Fusedale at dawn and dusk, when they’re in full voice. The hike is usually about six hours, including a trip on the Ullswater Steamer.

Discover more about Nicky’s guided hikes on the Hiking Highs website or ask at Front Desk.

Find out more

Watch Sandi Toksvig and Judi Love’s Extraordinary Escapes Lake District episode on Channel 4, featuring the Martindale deer rut (starts at around 11:20 minutes in, and continues after the first ad break)