Running around Windermere made me appreciate the Lake District all over again. The central lakes – particularly the area around Ambleside and the actual lake of Windermere – is the area of the Lake District I have kept coming back to, time and again. Mountain bike weekends as a single person were followed by family holidays before and even after we moved up here; when we moved from Bristol to Cumbria ideally I would have liked to have lived in Ambleside; when I retire I hope I will, or at least in the town of Windermere.
The Windermere marathon is run on-road; as we were running round the lakes off-road (partly as neither Penny nor I like road running – but also trail running is just more interesting), we knew that Windermere could be up to 40 miles and therefore needed to be run over two days. Even so, two 20-mile runs on consequetive days was going to be hard. Penny looked at the map again and turned up with a coloured-up version with a route which was possibly going to be difficult to navigate in places but which might be more like 30-35 miles.
We were staying at the Swan Hotel at Newby Bridge on the Saturday night, and I booked us sports massages in Backbarrow that evening as well. It would be worth trying to optimise our chances of actually running on the Sunday rather than walking or hobbling. I was hoping that the tweak in my knee wasn’t going to cause problems – and Penny is haunted every so often by previous injuries causing problems.
We arrived at the Swan at 9 o’clock on Saturday morning. I’d been up in plenty of time and bought myself coffee at Tebay services; unfortunately they hadn’t got any plain flapjacks so instead my ‘fuel’ consisted of Graze Bars (perfect running fuel) various other bars, and a sandwich I’d bought at Tebay (which was nice but not good as running fuel – I ate half after Windermere and struggled with my stomach for a bit). It was a beautiful spring day and walking into the reception at the Swan to check it was OK to leave a car and come back later, we were both impressed by the decor. The hotel has a lovely mixture of colours and different wallpapers, but the diversity creates a glorious and surprisingly homongeneous whole. I know my parents and my kids would love the hotel…
We got in my car and headed up to Wray Castle, on the western side of the lake and towards the northern end, Penny’s plan being that we’d do 20-26 miles on Saturday and then only about 11 on Sunday. At Wray the lovely, helpful, National Trust staff were impressed with what we were trying to do and we agreed we’d go back for lunch at the end of the run. I also determined to take the kids there at Easter. Several times during this run I was to comment how well the NT do things: their cafes offer good food; their visitor attractions are far more visitor friendly and child-friendly now than they were when I was young; and they seem to manage to carry out nature and heritage conservation whilst providing attractive places to visit.
From Wray there’s an easy-to-follow footpath around to Ambleside. I love Ambleside, although it’s one of those places where it’s easy to spend money on things which you don’t really need. However we weren’t going to go into the village centre today but instead ran along the road which goes past the vague remains of the Roman Fort (Galava) and to Waterhead. Here we found a footpath going up hill. We went up… and then up some more… and the views of the lake became more and more stunning…
Running around Windermere was to prove to be a bit of a ‘heritage’ run as well as nature. We ran up over land above Ambleside to come out near Townhead, another National Trust property which we both admitted to not having ever visited but to having wanted to (another time!). After a bit of a dilemma going around a farm (the footpath once went straight through but now goes around the farmyard), we ran across rolling grasslands up behind Holehird – another place to be visited sometime – lambs approaching us with curiosity while their mothers kept a cautious eye on us. Time and again I kept thinking about how this area is the Lake District at its best – it was probably spring in England at its best as well. Magnolias were in bloom, and rhododendrons of the most amazing colours – pale pink, fuschia pink – and of course daffodils everywhere. In some places we also saw the first few bluebells, and there was verdant wild garlic growing in profusion, the buds still tightly wrapped in green. How on earth had I ever thought I might want to live in Newcastle?!
We arrived in Windermere and felt that it was time for a coffee, so went into Booths. It also gave us a chance to look at the map as we needed to find our way out of Windermere along the Dales Way. Wiggling through various back streets (I never knew Windermere was so big), we eventually picked it up near Matson Ground, a farm and, by the look of it, stables. We went slightly off-course here but in fact it didn’t matter too much; and eventually ran near Winster (the Brown Horse at Winster has the most amazing selection of gins and tonics). I’d walked across the route we were taking previously with my friends Davina and Colin, who used to live near Blackwell and with whom I walked to the Brown Horse a few times. It’s a funny thing, thinking you recognise somewhere and then realising that you’ve gone west-east across the route instead of the (roughly) north-south we were doing today. Not far past here a man walking his labradors shouted at us which way we needed to go, which was useful as we were dithering!
We kept running past lovely Lake District cottages, wondering how on earth they were accessed and knowing that we’d never seen them before and might well never see them again. When you stick to the main or even secondary roads, there’s a whole load of countryside that you don’t even know exists. It’s not all fields and woods!
We reached a tarn and then turned on to a road. The map looked as if there was a bridleway that we needed to take, but it said it was private land. It turned out that you need to go further up the road before you can cut across a field and follow the footpath. Then the footpath disappeared again and we were wandering around some public access land wondering which direction we were meant to go in. We met a couple, who said it was far easier coming in the other direction but that if we headed south(ish) then we’d meet a path where we needed to turn left (east-ish). We eventually found this, but then arrived at a place where it wasn’t clear which left hand turn we should take – one going slightly back on ourselves up a hill or one the other side of a beck. Fortunately a group of people heading down from the other side of the beck told us they’d come from Gummer’s How, which is where we were heading for.
There was quite a bit of uphill now and I was feeling tired. Whereas we’d seen bus-stops earlier in the run and joked about how we could always catch a bus if we wanted to, there was no way a bus was going to be along in these woods! However we were now on the right track and came out on Gummer’s How to be rewarded with stunning views of Windermere and even to Morecambe Bay. Our legs were tired but ‘all’ we had to do was run down the road from Gummer’s How and then do the last bit along the A591 to our hotel.
We arrived back at the hotel at 5.45; just in time to make a quick visit to the spa and relax in the steam room and jacuzzi before heading off for our fab sports massages at Backbarrow. We then went back to the hotel for dinner and treated ourselves to a gin and tonic and lots of tap water; neither of us managed to finish our food however, which was a pity as it was lovely (Penny had fish pie; I had paella). It was then early to bed as we were both tired and also wanted to get going at a reasonable time the next morning. We had run/walked/climbed either 19.4 or 21 miles, depending whether you believed Penny’s Garmin or my Strava.
Day two: Newby Bridge to Wray
Sunday dawned bright again and our legs felt amazingly normal – the effects, we decided, of little alcohol, the jacuzzi, steam room and sports massage and an early night. However having only just had breakfast and as the first part of today’s route was uphill, we took it easy to start with.
We turned along a footpath to Finsthwaite, up through some woods and past Finsthwaite tower. There were some lovely cottages in Finsthwaite and I wondered how much a 1- or 2-bed cottage would cost. Passing into some more woods, we noticed the bleaberrys coming into berry and I wondered if they were what my uncle used to call wortleberries – I remember going to pick them as a family when I was young, I think probably in the Quantocks. Interestingly, one of the roads or lanes in Brampton is called Bleaberry Bent – I shall have to look out for them next time I go along there. I wonder if they are good for cooking with?
We were up above Stott Park Bobbin Mill now and heading up towards High Dam, which I believe used to power the mill. For me this is one of the most interesting of English Heritage properties, partly because it can still produce bobbins (I have one which I’m using for French knitting – it was meant to make a little woollen christmas tree but it will be for Christmas 2019 now). We were later to drive past it on the way back to the Swan Hotel to pick up Penny’s car, and she commented that you’d think a cafe would do quite well there as there are so few places to eat between Hawkshead and Newby Bridge.
High Dam was gorgeous, and we then had a lovely easy run – mostly downhill – over tracks maintained by the Lake District National Park. We did in fact come out on the road in slightly the wrong place, but as there was a footpath on the other side of the road, which led to the YMCA, it was fine.
From the YMCA there was a clear footpath which took us through part of the Greythwaite estate and past some gorgeous houses they own. Some are holiday cottages; some are having quite a bit of work done to them, presumably in order to be holiday cottages. The footpath along by the lake was lovely, with all sorts of flowers in bloom and a river joining the lake and creating a stony dam and ripples of its own. It made me really appreciate this western side of the lake, which I think is less well-known than the eastern, more built-up, side.
A quick jog from one of the Sawreys downhill and we were at Claife Heights viewing point – somewhere else neither of us had ever been. There is a great National Trust cafe at the ‘gatehouse’ to the walk up to the Heights – though you have to walk a few minutes to the Ferry ‘terminal’ to use the toilet – which again I’ve resolved I’m going to take the children to. Apparently it was once used for dances and all sorts, before falling into disrepair. It must have been magical to walk up the path to have a superb view over the lake, candlelight twinkling around you.
Fingerposts told us it was now about 4 miles or less to Wray, and we ran across some lovely grassy National Trust land before joining a more stony lakeside path. We had both run this before when doing the Hawkshead Trail race; but the Hawkshead race soon heads up the Coffin Trail to go back over the hill to Hawkshead. We instead kept running along the lake shore, and before long Wray Castle was in sight. Two miles to go; and time for a stretch. As I tried to start running again my tweaky knee was extremely painful, as if my entire left leg had gone into spasm (perhaps it had). I hobbled/tried to run/limped along, cross that after running so well for most of the morning so far after such a long run yesterday, my left leg now had let me down.
However we got back to Wray Castle and had finished our longest run to date. It had been beautiful, although at times a bit chilly and we had covered, in total, somewhere between 30 and 34 miles.
Unfortunately the cafe was full and we needed to sit inside somewhere warm, so we drove to Hawkshead for the obligatory post-run soup. Just Esthwaite Water still to do (and I need to do Brotherswater) and then we’ll have a big celebration!