It was beginning to feel like spring; the sun was shining although a chilly wind welcomed you as soon as you stepped out; and the daffodils were merrily in bloom. It was time to run the Ullswater Way, appropriately way-marked by a daffodil symbol, and circumnavigate the second largest lake in Cumbria.
We parked at Pooley Bridge (there’s a field to the back of the pubs which is only £3 for the entire day), made the obligatory visit to the (very well-maintained Eden Council) public toilets and then started running along the lake shore just to the east of the temporary bridge. It was cold enough that I had on two jackets as well as a long sleeved top, plus hat, buff and gloves. Penny said she’d thought of wearing shorts but had quickly changed her mind when she’d stepped outside her house!
We both remembered times we’d swum in Ullswater – for Penny it had been when training for and competing in the Ullswater triathlon; for me it had been several years ago when I’d swum about halfway across the lake from the sailing club with Arragons triathlon club. The lake was choppy then (one woman got out into the rescue boat as she felt seasick) and was even choppier today, with small white horses on the surface.
We followed the trail through a farm and across the road, past a field with alpacas and over a stream. The path wound its way a little uphill, a stone wall to our right as we ran in a southerly direction. The wind was quite strong against us when we were out in the open but in sheltered areas it felt almost warm in the sun, and it was rapidly getting to the stage where I thought about taking off one of my jackets.
At Howtown I remembered running the Ullswater trail race and being dropped off by the boat on a cold, wet day (I’ve only ever done two trail races from Glenridding and both times it’s been wet and cold: the second time my car got stuck in mud). At least today it was, so far, dry – though the forecast had been for rain later – and despite having had a lot of rain recently there had been a few days of drier weather and the ground wasn’t too boggy, nor the rocks too slippery. Just as well as we were about to tackle a stony part of the run where the track, narrow at times, passes up and down close to the lake and through trees.
I love this sort of running. It takes concentration not to slip over the rocks and tree roots, and there are places where it is not possible – or at least for those of us with short legs – to run up or down at much speed – but I love trying to pick the best line through the obstacles. I’m not a brave mountain biker but having done both that and downhill skiing helps, I think, with trail running: as does not having any knee or ankle injuries, past or present.
Along the trail there was a small stone barn converted to a tea room – closed still – and later as we approached Patterdale we ran through a National Trust property which had a tea room, also closed as the season hadn’t yet started, despite the fact that all along this route we kept overtaking or meeting walkers.
Passing Patterdale church I was thinking of the times I’ve sung there with my choir, each time having a solo to perform but also sitting in the choir stalls gazing out at the fells. We went past the field where my car had previously got stuck, tried to go in the (Eden Council) toilets near Glenridding Pier (closed until 1st April) and continued into Glenridding (National Park toilets in the car park by the river, where post-flood repair work is still being carried out). When the children were young I used to bring them down here to paddle in the lake and have a picnic, often while David (my ex-husband) ran up Hevellyn as practice for the Lakeland 50. His family, he and I had also stayed in a cottage in Glenridding just after I’d had a miscarriage: it must have been about October or November 2004 and Alex would only have been 8 months old or so; while the others went for a run I took Alex for a walk in his buggy along the river and down to the lake. Little did I know then that a year later I’d welcome my daughter into the world.
By now it had started to rain a little and, both being hungry – we’d run about 10 miles – we thought we’d sit in the bus shelter and eat flapjack. The bus shelter, handily, had seats – but both were already occupied by a couple of walkers eating their packed lunches! I really fancied a coffee so we went into a tea room (full of a coachload of old people, which, as Penny said, meant you knew it would be value for money and there would be plenty of cake) for coffee and cake.
From here the path is close to a very busy road and for a short stretch we even had to run along the road. A bus and a lorry were coming in opposing directions but even without us at the side of the road I don’t think there would have been room for them to pass: one would have had to stop. But thank goodness the Council or the National Park Authority has built this section of path which links other footpaths around the lake together, and means that on the whole people can walk (or run) round without touching the road.
I’d driven past the new section of path often in the car and frequently thought I’d like to walk or run along it: actually it’s not that exciting as it’s a fairly flat gravel path which winds through trees close to the road until you reach Aira Force waterfall. At this point, both being National Trust members, we felt we were justified in using their loos again (well, when you’re out and about for 20 miles and it’s not a race you may as well make the most of the opportunity, ‘just in case’). I went dizzy as I sat down and hoped that it wasn’t a sign of things to come (it wasn’t, but it was a worrying moment).
From here the path gets interesting as after Aira Force is probably the longest uphill part of the Ullswater Way. I was glad we hadn’t run round the other way as even with my love of knarly downhills I think this one would have been too much. We rose higher and higher and the views of the lake got better and better – you know how you think you’ve seen a good view, and then you go higher and it gets even better? Penny had previously run the course when training for the Lakeland Trails marathon, and commented how it was not so well waymarked then and she had wondered if she was going the right way as it seemed to take her further and further away from the lake.
At what must have been about the 15 mile mark we entered some woods, marked by a stone with ‘yan’ carved on it. I don’t know where ‘tan’ and ‘tethera’ were and wondered why it was there (it would be interesting to find out). In places the trees had been cleared and there was a lovely open view of the lake; in other places we were running across that most springy of surfaces, a bed of dry pine needles. A young runner went past us and for a while was only a few yards ahead of us: but after a while she disappeared from sight. I wondered how many miles she was doing and whether she knew the young man we had passed on the other side of the lake, who had come springing down a rocky path making it look as if a circuit of the lake was just a stroll in the park.
Coming out the other side it was cold and the rain was lashing down and I thought about getting my almost-waterproof jacket back out of my bag; fortunately you could see that it was going to clear up and I started admiring some of the houses we were passing instead. I would love a stone cottage with a huge kitchen/dining/music room conservatory, but of course when you’re somewhere beautiful but fairly inaccessible you’re totally reliant on a car to get anywhere – and in the winter sometimes only a four-wheel drive vehicle can get anywhere.
The trail meets a road with a three-fingered fingerpost giving you the option to go to Bennethead via the road or across the fields. The fields are boggy and this is where the waymarking is a little more difficult to follow as you can’t necessarily see a clear route. It looked in one field as if new drainage ditches were being put in and a gravel-bedded path, so we followed that and soon found ourselves going up a hill to join the road into Bennethead.
From here there’s the only significant section which is on road, and you need to make sure you don’t miss the low-rise Ullswater Way post which takes you on the left-hand fork and past what looks like a riding school or some stables. Here someone had planted circles of young trees and then let livestock into the field – so the trees were all getting knocked down or eaten. Is there any significance to the circles? Did someone just think they’d look nice when they (if they) grow?
Running down the field and then up the other side reminded me of running up the hill to Lanercost from Newtown when running from Carlisle to Brampton along the Hadrian’s Wall trail: you’re so near the end and your energy is getting low, and there’s yet another hill… Penny’s knees by now were hurting her quite badly, and mine were beginning to feel that they’d done something. It wasn’t so much a case of leaping down the hill on the other side as more or less shuffling down it, though an elderly couple who we overtook who were out for a walk were still impressed.
We reached the green static caravans at Waterfoot caravan park, which I’ve driven past plenty of times without realising quite how big it is. There’s a lovely old house and some pretty cottages on site, and then loads of these ugly green ‘buildings’ and some log cabins. I guess at least they’re green and they looked very well cared for; I just think they’re ugly.
The path turns past the house (and the Ullswater trail/red squirrel sign) and across another field to cross the road at the top of the lake just outside Pooley Bridge. A short run through the trees – with a final glorious view down the lake – and we were back at the temporary bridge and had completed 19.15 miles around one of Cumbria’s largest lakes. Straight opposite Granny Dowbekin’s was enticing us in, with just 45 minutes to go before closing time (it was Sunday). Home made ham hock soup with a lovely seeded bread roll, a cold drink and a friendly welcome was just what we needed.
And as we staggered back to the car I thought not only what a sense of achievement I felt but also how much I had enjoyed the run, and what a great idea of Penny’s it had been to set herself running round the 16 biggest lakes in Cumbria as a turning-50 challenge. In three weeks’ time is the biggest challenge yet: getting round Windermere, off-road. And I’ve decided I want to do another off-road half marathon – but not the Howgills half as that was really, really tough.