Talking the walk

“It hardly rained at all. We walked every day and my feet didn’t get sore and I was quite impressed with myself really!”

The Cumbria Way was devised by the Ramblers’ Association – ie by real walkers – and it’s a real walk. The paths go from slightly too smooth and surfaced to challengingly rugged. Two Lakesides, two rivers, a hill and a high pass; the full length of Langdale, the full length of Borrowdale; a couple of waterfalls; woodland, farmland and moors. There’s a satisfactory succession of cafés. And only a single sewage works in the whole seventy miles.

The scenery, of course, is superb. And it’s superb in several different ways. On just two stages the route takes to the heights. But one of the walkers was especially impressed by the low country around Little Langdale: something you don’t see when you do the normal fellwalk from a car. Another felt the best day of all was the undulating countryside on the first day, before even entering the national park.

Criticisms? Not enough notices. Those piles of slate at Chapel Stile are presumably some sort of industrial archeology rather than just rubbish. There was an interesting sign at Stonethwaite explaining the Herdwick sheep. Did you know that a two year old one was called a twinter? Or is it twintie – I didn’t read the notice all that carefully.

Too many notices. The notices that were, were prohibitions. Grown-ups don’t need to be told Do Not Touch The Wood Burning Stove. Isn’t there something more interesting to say about the mysterious minerals of the northern fells than, there’s a £500 fine for taking any of them away?

Waymarking. This isn’t a national trail, and the waymarking is patchy: in the high fells there isn’t any at all. Some of the footpath arrows and signposts are marked as Cumbria Way: it’d be better if all of them along the C Way were marked as such. The Stake Pass originally had wooden marker poles, hence the name. I personally wouldn’t want to see them put back there, and the National Park Authoritiy agrees with me on this. (I wouldn’t  want more interepretation signboards either: I like my landscape uninterpreted.) The Cumbria Way needs you to use a map, and also a compass – not in any technical way, but to keep track of the general direction of travel. A basic ‘just a bit east of north’ gets you across Torver Common, while plain ‘north’ is needed off High Pike, especially when the weather closes in.

Beacon Tarn

Day 1: Beacon Tarn, with Coniston Old Man ahead

The start? Arriving by train gives you the idea of Ulverston as a seaside town, but coming  from Coniston doesn’t. The way should really start at the fake lighthouse, with the wide view over Morecambe Bay.

Honestly, I’d end it off at Dalston. It’s a lovely village, complementing Ulverston. There are only occasional trains to Carlisle, but plenty of buses.

Alternatively, there’s a path from Buckabank Mill on the east side of the Caldew that’s presumably not tarmacked. North of Cummerside, my older map marked the east bank as the actual Cumbria Way. It’s untarred, but enclosed between a fence and riverside scrubland, only mildly enjoyable.

There are plenty of B&Bs, some of which will do pick-up and return. Coppermines youth hostel is worth the extra mile and a bit (each way!) Skiddaw House would be special, but even booking four months ahead we failed to get a bednight. If you don’t have David and me, several commercial firms will carry your baggage.

Side House Langdale

End of Day 2: Side House Farm, Langdale, to Langdale Pikes

For a walk of 70 miles, taken over five days, it’s hard to think of a better one. It’s a whole lot wilder than Hadrian’s Wall: less bleak than the West Highland Way and also more interesting. The feel is quite like Wainwright’s Coast to Coast in terms of charm, variety, and frequent surprises; but a bit easier and less than half as long.

Parts of the path are pretty busy – for something with solitude you’d need the Pembrokeshire Coast Path or Offa’s Dyke. If you already know Lakeland well, that spoils some of the surprises; which is an argument for doing it straight away, before you know Lakeland any better. It’s a fine choice for a first-ever long walk: just so long as someone’s prepared to cast an occasional eye at a compass.

There’s no official website (it’s not an official trail). But the commercial Sherpa Van website is a good first click into the planning process.

Carlisle Old Town Hall

Carlisle Old Town Hall: endpoint of the Cumbria Way (on some maps)

Miles to Carlisle

limestone stream

limestone stream enters River Caldew

For its last 14 miles the Cumbria Way follows the River Calder downstream to Carlisle. It has left the National Park; it’s left the hills; it’s left the tough grey mountain geology. These last 14 miles are going to be different. The question is, are they going to be any good?

At the edge of Caldbeck the Way passes its first sewage works. But then it rises above the river, with green fields decoratively dotted with cows rising like a toy landscape to the rain-pale hills behind. Hmm – some of these are even more decorative, being ornamented with horns. And that brown one at the back, isn’t he a bull? I sneak around the field edge and into woods of wild garlic and bluebells. The path drops to the riverside, murky green and muddy. These particular non-Lakeland rocks are limestone: and on the riverbank opposite, a stream emerges from three small grotto caves and sparkles down six inches into the river. Yes, this is just as lovely as the Lakeland bits.

After a redstone bridge (Penrith sandstone), Cumbria Way wanders along field tracks, then is simply a fingerpost pointing along the rivervbank. Field edges and six miles of riverbank lead down to Dalston. It’s not great, and it’s certainly not Lakeland, but it’s okay.

At Dalston, a sign says Carlisle 5. More sinisterly, it also says Caldew Cycleway. Yes: from here on the path will be bend-free, bump-free, and tarmac. It skirts around an industrial estate, and is squeezed against the river by a railway line. No, this isn’t Lakeland: and it’s nasty.

A dirt footpath bends away alongside the river. Slightly less nasty, but on the other hand slightly longer? The dirt path has the advantage also that I can poke my poles into it to shove myself along; pretending it’s a proper rural river and ignoring the industrial hinterland.

Carlisle closes in. On my map, the Way forks away from the riverside into an industrial estate behind the station, where it peters out between two tall blue gasometers. Well, the industrial estate behind the station is at least convenient for the station: and Carlisle’s Botchergate does contain a superb selection of five takeaway food outlets.

That’s a fine anticlimactic ending. But there’ll be one more posting: was it a good walk, did we think?

Day 5: Satisfying sheep

Cumbria Way

Cumbria Way path heads towards Skiddaw House around the side of Lonscale Fell

The day starts with David’s birthday breakfast. He receives Kilimanjaro themed gifts such as socks for his forthcoming expedition with his daughter. The day ahead has somewhat limited socks appeal, as Julia needs to catch a Carlisle train mid-afternoon. An end point at Whitewater Dash Beck (rather than Caldbeck) will assure this – but Jane has an even more radical suggestion. Given the little black car as mechanical yak, why not ride it up to the high car park at the back of Latrigg? After all, as she points out: “We’re not chaps, and we’re not the product of boarding schools. So we don’t have to complete every step of the route.”

But as me and David are both of us chaps, we are obliged to cross High Pike. Which works by us leaving both of the cars at Whitewater Dash Beck, a place called Peter Hall; walking the quick exit route in reverse as far as Skiddaw House; walking the proper route up and over to Caldbeck; and everybody meeting up at the tea room there.

We walked up beside the waterfalls, to see three figures hanging around Skiddaw House the former youth hostel (and now England’s remotest independent hostel) lonely in the wide hill sweeps under Skiddaw itself. Our three walkers had already arrived more than half way into their walk; and David and I would have to hurry to avoid keeping them waiting at Caldbeck.

The  Back o’ Skiddaw is unlike the rest of Lakeland. It’s grassy, and heathery, and smooth. Given that it’s not so spectacularly good as everywhere else, not so many people come here: which solitude is such a desireable quality in some eyes as to make Back o’ Skiddaw the best of all. One unfortunate outdoor-writer colleague, looking for a new way to express this thought, came up with: “The back of Skiddaw is where sheep outnumber people; and the walkers you meet wear smiles of quiet satisfaction.”

We strode away down the gentle paths here in the heart of the northern fells, with such ease underfoot free to discuss the difficulties of future forays to Kilimanjaro and the Atlas Mountains. Then the Cumbria Way turns abruptly up the hill slope, and becomes a rather pretty, somewhat boggy, and surprisingly small path alongside a beck of small falls and the occasional rowan tree. Are most Cumbria Way walkers lost at this point – or taking the easier way out – or simply beelining through the heather for the Lingy Hut, a boxy waypoint on the skyline high above? When we reach it, the hut has a rare CW waymarker pinned to the gable and a dozen walkers lurking inside.

High Pike is actually only 658m high, barely overtopping the 337m Caldbeck radio tower a couple of miles away. But it’s still the high point of the Cumbria Way, and also of the Northern Fells at the back of Skiddaw. In the latter capacity it has wide views across north Cumbria to the Solway and my home hill of Criffel above Dumfries. And like all these hills, its gentle grassy slopes give an easy and fast descent to Caldbeck’s tea room.

Despite its 337m mast, Caldbeck has no phone signal. A text picked up somewhere in the heights says our walkers have gone to see the osprey at Bassenthwaite – but no way for us to tell them it’s teatime in Caldbeck. Anyway, Caldbeck has no tea. The tea room has three tables, all of them already sat at, and a queue.

Our walkers arrive from the osprey viewpoint – one of them indeed having actually viewed the osprey. We find Caldbeck’s Number Two tea room: remarkable as the least tea-supplying tea room ever. The menu is short: but most of what’s on it is even so not available. Sticky toffee’s off today, they do have two slices of hot Belgian chocolate slab cake – with cream or ice cream. With chill drizzle starting up outside, cream seems preferable. But only ice cream is available. I consider ordering both the available slabs, but what will any later customers then enjoy?

As a male personage, hence with completion fever, my plan has been to carry bivvy bag for the remaining 14 miles to the path’s end at Carlisle. But it’s only 3pm: and the chill drizzle just stopped for a moment. Is it possible to reach Carlisle tonight, in time for the last train home?

High PIke

Descending north from High Pike towards Caldbeck

Living on Borrowdale Time

Langdale to Keswick is often done as a single day … but on a Sunday, the earliest you can get by bus from Keswick back to Langdale to start doing this is at 12.20 pm. Would it be fun – or even feasible – to attempt it in an afternoon?

The day started once again with before-breakfast photos, in what would be the trip’s last sunlight. Those who conformed to the B&B’s strictly 8.30am breakfast missed the shiny time. Meanwhile I got some photos – ones, what’s more, which I don’t already have – of Stonethwaite in nice light. Dipping my right ankle into the stream to sort out a sprain from two days before, I found the real reason why Julia had refrained from swimming in the Langstrath Beck. There are in fact deep pools, of striking beauty, particularly beloved by both the painter Heaton Cooper and large format photographers David and Angela Unsworth. I’ve even taken a pic of them myself. But even a single extremity dipped into them becomes unendurable after 4 minutes and 50 seconds.

Then David set off for Glaramara, the walkers set off for Keswick, and I took the little black car to Keswick also before the inefficient bus journey back to the beginning of (technically speaking) yesterday. Ambleside’s a place I avoid; but a 30 minute inter-bus interval let me find a rugged little cafe above a climbing gear shop. Big coffee cups and photos by Bill Birkett – though none of Langstrath. For that, I’d have to catch that bus back to Dungeon Ghyll … leap out, walking poles a-waggling … stride brisky up Mickleden … step up all 800 or so steps of the pitched path to Stake Pass … and descend the 12 or 15 wiggles of the subsoil path. No pics here. You have to believe Langstrath was worth the work. Dull light may be ideal for the Unsworths and Heaton Cooper but I just shove the camera in the sack and walk through unencumbered.

On past Stonethwaite, and into Borrowdale proper. Borrowdale proper is high green slopes frothy with oakwoods, and wrinkled grey crags, and meadows in spring green. But above all Borrowdale is the River Derwent, golden over its pebbles. Alongside Derwent Water, the sun was breaking through here and there. Actually the sunbeams were there and there. None of them were on me: but better, they were selecting various well-known bits of Borrowdale. Castle Crag; Lodore Hotel; Troutdale Pinnacle so boldly led by David in the rain back in days when rock also meant Buddy Holly.

I arrived in Keswick enjoyably exhausted, but still in time for supper – Indian, as it happened, as the others had found a discount offer voucher at the B&B and it was right beside the one Keswick car park that stops charging in the evenings.

Keswick youth hostel has computers, just £2 for half an hour. Did I post this posting? Did I bloggery. After 15 miles rather fast, and large oriental eats, I had a shower and went to sleep.

Shepherd's Crag Borrowdale

Shepherd's Crag and the head of Derwent Water

Raising the Stake

Free of the pestering photographer, the three walkers headed on up Mickleden, took a break at the turnoff for Stake Pass, and took another break half way up. What with the breaks and the gentle zigzags, the 400m ascent was less tiring than they expected. Stake Pass is (if you don’t do High Pike) the high point of the walk – literally, but perhaps also metaphorically, as the lonely path arrives at the brink of Langstrath, the southward extension of Borrowdale.

A new built “subsoil” path winds down in gentle bends that aren’t quite the same bends of the original pack-pony path. Down in Langstrath itself: “Big boulders and little lambs,” is Clare’s summary. They rated Langstrath Inn as the best meal of the trip: simple, well-cooked, and plenty of fresh veg.

Stake Pass

descending the zigzag path from Stake Pass into Langstrath

Langdale to Keswick is often a single day: but they split it into two, allowing those who wanted to to wander up to Watendlath in the late afternoon, and those who didn’t to play Scrabble at Stonethwaite. (Part of our duties as porters was to pack in the Scrabble.) And for the following, Borrowdale, day, they diverted from the Derwent to take in Cat Bells. A place more crowded than any of the riverside paths below.

They enjoyed the Derwent Water shore for a couple of miles: enjoyed even more the café at Nicol End boat yard. “The scones are the size of half bricks,” Julia testifies. Tasty? “Oh, I couldn’t have eaten one…”

It seemed like even more fun to take the lake ferry for the last stretch into Keswick. Now, what’s become of Ronald?

Day 3: Tramping along …

Cumbria Way along Langdale, with Side Pike and Pike o' Blisco

Day Three dawns clear and cold, and although I’ve got a few dawn photos of the Langdale Pikes already it’s always worth getting out before breakfast to grab a couple more … Above the hotel, perfectly lit, gleam the crags of White Gill where David and I climbed ‘The Slabs Route Two’ in our teenage years. David sets off Pikewards to enjoy a sunlit Jack’s Rake. I accompany the Cumbrian wayfarers up Langdale for some more photos.

At Mickleden, though, I turn back. For today I am obliged to be singing in a choral concert at Thornhill parish church. Specifically, the first bass part in Bob Chilcott’s Requiem, along with Elgar’s From the Bavarian Highlands – six numbers celebrating the fun of shooting at chamois. Come from the valleys wide, come from the mountain side, see how we muster strong, tramping along!

Which, of course, is exactly what I’m not doing.

At 11pm I drive back into Lakeland, to hunt down the lonely light at the end of starlit Stonethwaite, tucked under the vertical oakwoods of Borrowdale.


Basic hostelling

Coniston Coppermines Youth Hostel

Coniston Coppermines Youth Hostel

I’d planned some bloggering about by putting £1 coins into the computer at Coniston Coppermines. Coniston Coppermines, no computer! Its listed with ‘basic hostel’ status – but has breakfast, hot showers, a few books to read including even a back issue of tgo magazine with an article about Rannoch Moor which I spend a tired half-hour re-reading. A particularly mindless activity as I already knew exactly what was in that article, seeing as I wrote the thing.

Apart from computerlessness, which is surely an advantage, the basicness of Coppermines consists of not having a road to it. The track is so steep and rough that concern for exhaust pipes and sumps means that it makes perfect sense to walk the half hour from the hostel down into Coniston, with a choice of the delightful track to left of the stream with its woods and waterfalls, or the equally delightful path to its right.

After bar meal at the Sun (indeed, in the Sun lounge), very slightly less delightful is the same streamside path in the uphill direction…

Day 1: ugliest building ever?

Cumbria Way north of Ulverstone

“You know,” Julia says after a moment, “that is the ugliest building I’ve ever seen. It looks like Battersea Power Station.”

“But Battersea Power Station is magnificent!”

“Well, this thing isn’t. Not even an inflatible pig in the sky overhead would do anything for this one.”

The flying pig isn’t just a random hallucination caused by 15 miles of hot Lakeland hiking – for those less than half a century old, it references a classic Pink Floyd album cover of 1977. Meanwhile, “Battersea Power Station” is the building currently known as Tate Modern; while an “album” … this could go on for ever.

A comment that might also apply to stage one of the Cumbria Way: Ulverstone to Coniston? Well, perhaps not. We did first have to overcome the problem of the prearranged car park spot – Harvey’s walkers’ map is first rate for walkers, not quite so superb for motorists trying to navigate the one-way streets and pedestrianised precincts. And having pinned down the pointy art thingie that marks the walk start, we didn’t linger over the attractions (or otherwise) of Ulverstone, except to note that it has a lighthouse-like monument that was built to commemorate Stan Laurel’s father, who for reasons the guidebook no doubt would explain wasn’t called Mr Laurel, and which monument takes rather a long time to vanish into the heat haze behind as we walk determinedly northwards into the warming day.

Field edges with bluebells begin the long walk. And a stony high track, with first rock chunks poking out of the grassland, and views of green fields and forests, and Coniston Old Man blue grey in the skyline ahead. After three hours: “I think we must be in the National Park now,” says Clare. Reasoning: the gates have started opening with a finger-click rather than a piece of blue string and a heave: instead of comfortably scruffy farmyards we just passed a large glossy horse being shined up ready for a horse show. Perceptive Clare: studying the map, we crossed the dotted line just five minutes earlier, at main road through Gawthwaite.

Half a day in, and the walk, in the style of any of the best walks, changes its nature. It rises to moorland still in winter brown, and a blue-grey Beacon Tarn lying under a large sky. A couple of hours of that, and we drop to Coniston Water, with a bumbling path under trees and over tree roots.

The ugly building? Coniston Hall, with its chimneys rising like broken pine trees. Not a pre-planning laws Victorian extravagance of someone with lots of money but no artistic discrimination. Well, the tasteless wealthy chap was actually in the 16th Century. But the critics fall abruptly silent when, rounding the over-chimneyed corner, we find that the maligned building contains a hidden doorway where they’re selling ice cream…

why Sir John Barrow wasn’t called Mr Laurel

Sir John Barrow, explorer and founder of the Royal Geographical Society, wasn’t called Mr Laurel because when our guidebook said ‘Best Known Son is Stan Laurel’ it meant son of Ulverston, rather than son of the previously mentioned son of Ulverston Sir John B. In fact Stan Laurel‘s father was an actor and showman called Mr Jefferson. Glad we worked that one out!

Coniston Hall

Yak management

Langdale Pikes

Langdale - we'll be there on Friday night

This Cumbria Way is getting as tricky as an trip to Everest: what with three walkers (Clare, Jane and Julia); two yaks (David and myself); two yak waggons – otherwise called motor cars. Even the lake ferries on Coniston Water and Derwent Waters only add to the complications…

David’s arriving a day late – he has a job, poor man. But Ulverston’s easier to get to by train than Coniston, given that Coniston’s rail line closed in 1958. So the four of us book into Coniston for two nights; drive to Ulverston in the morning; and leave the car for David to pick up 8 hours later. Cunning: just supposing he remembers his car keys. Then for Day Two, we two yaks haul luggage in one waggon to Langdale’s New Dungeon Ghyll; walk back to Coniston over as many hills as are to be had; and then drive the second waggon to Langdale. So not only do we get to do the section of the Cumbria Way in reverse, we also don’t do it after all given the upward attractions of Pike o’ Blisco and Swirl How…

Clare doesn’t think she’s ever walked 15 miles in a single day. Well, the day in question will be a Thursday, so there will in theory be a Coniston lake steamer from Lake Bank. Do they sell single tickets? If they don’t it’ll be expensive enough to tempt anyone into walking those last four miles.

The forecast says no rain at all over the next four days. Just the occasional shower of snow! Having left the odd night at Coniston Coppermines unbooked until five days ago, fate decreed that I’d get a bed there anyway, even though such casualness certainly doesn’t deserve one. A comfy bunk and snowy mountains to look up at: Cumbria here we come.

Cumbria Way: Can it be Coniston?

All the B&Bs were booked back in February and the plans laid. Now suddenly Thursday 3rd May is almost on us. A quick check on Cumbria Journey Planner shows that the first clever scheme is still in place: we’re booked into the B&B at Coniston (“Oaklands”) for two nights: the idea is to leave all the luggage and catch the morning bus at 7.40 or else 9.25 to Ulverston, then walk back.

At least, the two women (Clare and Jane) are booked into “Oaklands“. David and I are on this trip in the role of Lakeland yaks: as experienced fellwalkers we’re in charge of lugging the luggage and making sure there are blister plasters, glasses of red wine, and clean socks at appropriate intervals. As befits our more rugged natures, we’re booked into Coniston Coppermines youth hostel. Ahem … but only for the second night. I’d vaguely thought, perhaps I’ll want to sleep out on a hill somewhere. Well, looks like I’m going to have to.

Despite knocking about in the Lakes since the age of five (Pike of Blisco from Blea Tarn), there are bits of the Cumbria Way I don’t know. After four edge-to-edge crossings of the National Park by various routes, I’m interested to see the ‘official’ one. I’ve never been to Ulverston. Is it as nice as Grange over Sands, we wonder?

Coniston Water

Coniston Water and Coniston Old Man