Among fell walkers, the Lake District's Black Sail Hut, England's most remote and resolutely traditional hostel, is folklore. The most famous anecdote is about a warden who entertained hostellers with his home brew and his squeeze box. His successor is acquiring an equally formidable reputation for vegetarian cooking.

A converted shepherd's bothy, accessible to walkers only via mountain passes, Black Sail is the sole human habitation in a valley shadowed by Lakeland's Great Gable, and several less steep but dramatic peaks.

When, on a wet afternoon, we stumbled towards Black Sail's smoking chimney from the Red Pike/High Stile/High Crag ridge which overlooks Lake Buttermere, we were greeted by the warden with a huge pot of tea and improbable instructions to stow our boots on the beam running across the ceiling of the common room.

The days when hostellers at Black Sail had to brush their teeth in a nearby stream are gone, but gas light is the only concession to modernity in the unheated dormitories (single sex; Black Sail does not have what the YHA describes as "family rooms"). Washing facilities for perspiring hikers are a basin of hot water carried from the kitchen through a field of friendly sheep.

After supper in front of the log-burning stove, where talk is of aching muscles and torn crampons, and the nearest pub a 3,000ft scramble away, hostellers confer over maps. Warm the blankets (there are plenty of them - I needed nine) in front of the fire, before saying good night to the sheep.

The reward the following morning is to wake to utter tranquillity and, on a clear day, blissful views. Over breakfast it became clear that Black Sail's spectacular isolation breeds camaraderie, and chores - which include chopping logs - were performed with good humour. As we climbed away and warmed up with the exercise, the memories of shivering faded and we turned with nostalgia to see the little hut shrink from view.

Black Sail Hut is closed from end October to early March; Black Sail Hut, Ennerdale, Clitter, Cumbria CA23 3AY. Adults £5.90 per night, children £4 per night, concessions £1 with UB40 (and all with YHA card). Evening meal, breakfast and sheet sleeping-bags extra. YHA's northern region information: 01629 825850.