Four Tarns

I’m not a winter open water swimmer: I swim for the experience – getting there and the scenery – not just for the swimming. When it’s raining (or worse) and bitterly cold I want to be out running, with lots of layers on, a dry change of clothes in the car, and a cafe at the end where I can warm up (or, of course, just my house). Getting changed in cold air at the side of a cold lake, possibly in wet weather as well, has no appeal to me whatsoever: I love swimming but in terms of winter swimming training and improving my swimming stamina, I’d rather go to a leisure centre pool and have a warm shower straight afterwards.

It’s therefore always a bit dodgy arranging to do any open water swimming at the end of September, especially an extended swimming trip which entails getting in and out of wet swimsuits, wetsuits, gloves, etc. I’d had an idea of ‘swimming Snowdon’ as part of my 6 at 60 challenges, but in the end decided that actually I’d far rather just have a weekend of trying to complete swimming in the lakes and tarns of Cumbria: there were about 6 left (though of course as soon as you talk to anyone about it they say ‘oh, have you tried…’ and a new idea gets added to the list).

Penny agreed to join me on another mini-adventure, and so I booked a yurt via AirBnB in the Wasdale valley, originally thinking that we might have time to do 4 tarns in a day and 2 the following day ‘on the way home’. However it became clear when thinking about logistics that actually it was more likely to be 3 on one day and then 1, possibly 2, the following day (when I got home and counted up how many lakes and tarns I had swum in in total it came out at 28, so although there are still more to try, I feel I’ve had a pretty good go at the challenge).

I drove down to Penny & Tim’s house on the Friday evening, stopping off to say ‘hello’ to my children en route, and we went to the Millyard Cafe at Morland for pizza. I’ve mentioned them before but they deserve to be mentioned again as it is literally some of the best pizza I have ever had: the other food is good as well and it’s a great place to stop during a bike ride or walk, or just because you want something to eat. Penny and Tim go there regularly.

On Saturday we got up and fuelled up on granola before setting off to the Lake District, having to divert through Matterdale and up to the A66 towards Keswick, as the road down past Ullswater was blocked off by police (we never found out why). The first stop was to be Moss Eccles Tarn, at Far Sawrey (not far from Beatrix Potter’s Hilltop). We’d run past this several times when doing the Hawkshead trail race/trail race route, and I’d always thought the rocks at the southern end looked like an inviting place to get in and swim. We parked in a church car park (opposite the Cuckoo Brow Inn) which asked for a £2 donation (willingly given), and walked up the track towards the Tarn. The sun was out, the sky was blue, and we were quickly quite warm.

The tarn itself was quite busy. We had a chat with a couple of other women who were sitting enjoying the sun, and then a bunch of teenagers came along with a radio and sat and chatted, followed by some dog walkers and then, as we were leaving again after swimming, another group of teenagers (doing Outward Bound or Duke of Edinburgh or something, I would guess). It was a glorious day to be out, so not surprising that there were plenty of people around.

I swam over to the little island you can see towards the background of the picture, but it was a bit squishy underfoot (I’m not good with squishy), so I turned straight round and came back again. Penny really liked the fact that alder had self-seeded at the side of the water; I liked the various flowering plants we saw.

From Sawrey we drove southwards and parallel to the western shore of Windermere, to Stott Park. There are several car parks here as the walk up to High Dam is a popular one; a Lake District National Park car park and a farmer’s car park. If you fancy going to see Stott Park bobbin mill as well, which to my mind is one of the most interesting of all English Heritage sites, especially if you get the opportunity to go on a tour and especially if the steam engine is running, then the bobbin mill also has a car park.

We were going up to High Dam, which is owned by the Lake District National Park Authority but which once upon a time was the top lake which fed the stream which powered the water wheel for the bobbin mill: this was in the days before steam. The trees all around would have provided wood for the bobbins – hence the log stacks in the photo above – and if any readers remember wooden ‘Silko’ bobbins then that’s the type of thing which was more latterly made at the bobbin mill; also wooden duffle coat toggles.

High Dam was also busy with people, with several people already in or on the water, and others walking and sitting around. It’s a lovely spot but you don’t have the magical peace and tranquillity that you get from some of the more remote tarns, and we were also a little worried about our bags. It was probably these two tarns that made me consider what it is I want from wild swimming, and hence my initial comments: Penny and I were discussing that if swimming was our main ‘sport’ then we’d be more likely to go to a lake or tarn closer to home and more easy to walk to, and not be bothered how many people were there; but what we were looking for were those tarns which are just that little bit extra-special. Having said that, swimming in Buttermere was one of my favourite swimming experiences and one I would like to repeat, and Buttermere is always popular.

Again we swam over to some islands – this time I found some rocks to perch on – before swimming back to rescue our bags, getting dry, and then driving on to our next tarn.

It was a longer walk to our next tarn and I was pleased with myself that I managed to navigate us correctly up there – I’m not the most reliable of navigators on walking routes (I’m fine on roads, but put me in the middle of the countryside and I forget to check contour lines and have little sense of how far distance on a map equates to on the ground). We had parked at Blawith, just south of Water Yeat (aren’t Cumbria place names great!), and started walking along a lane still rich with juicy sweet blackberries. This meandered up between some lovely cottages, before becoming a grassy lane where an old pony was tethered, with strict instructions on each gate not to feed him as the vet has put him on a very restrictive diet.

Crossing the fields to farm, we came out at the lane which leads up from Water Yeat, before taking a path that wiggled through ferns and gorse and crossed streams, leading slightly uphill. I kept thinking we’d come out at Beacon Tarn: finally we did, and there it was, glistening in the sun under a blue sky. A woman was getting dry having had a swim; as we got ready two more people got in, without wetsuits. We swam around in our wetsuits for a bit and then got out, took them off, and got back in in just swimsuits. It was chilly but bracing and invigorating, and we agreed that it had been the best tarn of the day and was probably a new favourite. I would definitely like to swim there again, and for longer – it was about the right size that you felt you could swim the length of it and back, possibly even more than once, without worrying about it being enormously deep or being too far from the shore or there being enormous (potentially vicious) fish… (I always have visions of something similar to the Loch Ness monster suddenly snapping at my feet from the depths of Ullswater or Wastwater – the problem is that you just don’t know what is down there, lurking in the depths).

After that there was only time to drive across Corney Fell, with an amazing view of the Isle of Man looking clearer than I ever remember seeing it before, and to find our yurt, which was just to the east of Gosforth. I can recommend it: The Yurt by the Stream. We walked into Gosforth for dinner at the Kellbank, which was also good (the vegetables were a bit overcooked, but the steak and ale pie was delicious), and which has a lamb who visits and which apparently behaves far better than many dogs or humans. Walking back the night sky was stunningly full of stars, an a line of red lights out at sea indicated the row of wind turbines marching away from Barrow.

As we fell asleep with the stars visible through the nightlight of the yurt, a tawny owl (or two?) in the trees nearby called ‘too wit too woo’.

The next morning unfortunately was grey and mizzly. After packing and breakfast we drove up along the side of Wastwater to Wasdale Head, where we parked in the National Trust car park, discussing how for future WastFests it might be good to camp overnight so nobody has to have a two hour drive back afterwards. The track to Burnmoor Tarn looked straight forward, but unfortunately it was all to easy to miss the point at which the bridlepath that we wanted to follow diverged from the footpath up on to the hill above the screes: partly as the footpath had had some maintenance work and so looked like the main path. As we started walking more or less straight up some fairly close-together contour lines, Penny said ‘are we going to the right way?’; as we looked back and across to the east it was clear that we weren’t.

We went back down the hill and managed to pick up the bridlepath we wanted, which was badly eroded in places and which then led over some fairly boggy patches. Burnmoor Tarn is more like an overgrown puddle on a fairly flat boggy bit of ground; it didn’t help that it was grey and damp and that the hill in the background (Great Worm Crag?) was rapidly disappearing behind a layer of cloud. Still, we were here now… we got changed and got into the water, to find that it was very shallow a long way out. Perhaps we should have walked further round, although other writers and swimmers say this is shallower than most of the lakes anyway, but to be honest I wanted to get this over and done with without getting too cold and wet. The water temperature was OK but the air temperature and dampness getting changed wasn’t the best.

All thoughts of swimming in another tarn that day evaporated, and after a couple of failed attempts at finding a cafe which would serve us some warming soup and a cheese scone, we ended up at Granny Dowbekins at Pooley Bridge. The service was friendly and the ham and lentil soup and cheese scone were delicious, the soup containing proper pieces of ham hock. Last time we’d been in there had been at the end of running around Ullswater, before the new bridge had been completed; both times were satisfyingly excellent and it’s somewhere I would have no hesitation in recommending.

It was time to go home, having clocked up 4 tarns in one weekend and having found one more to add to the ‘favourite tarns of all time’ list. But it’s now perhaps time to hang up my wetsuit until next year.

Paris

I’ve now been to Paris about 4 times; but the first 3 I didn’t fall as much in love with the city as many people do. I think perhaps when I was younger I was less clear about what I was interested in; and also I didn’t really research ‘places to visit’ before I went there, unlike my daughter who had a very clear idea about what she wanted (and didn’t want) to see.

In fact she had planned a detailed timetable which made me a little worried that I was going to have a regimented holiday being marched round various sites; and several times I tried to convince her that it might be nicer to go to the coast somewhere. I ended up being glad she had done her research and that she insisted on us going to Paris.

We travelled down by Eurostar, which just seems such a civilised way to travel despite the crowded waiting area at St Pancras International and the lack of places to get a decent meal while you wait (there’s a Pret a Manger, which is great but I don’t really want sandwiches when it’s dinner time on a Sunday evening). You arrive in the heart of Paris at the Gare du Nord, and we had booked into a hotel just across the road for our first night. Already it felt different from home (even from London), with the cafes open out on the pavement and people milling around in the warmth of a summer evening.

The following morning we had our first pleasant surprise when it turned out that a week’s travel card for zones 1-5 inclusive was only Eu25 each – and the very helpful ticket guy at the station took photocopies of our passport photos as we didn’t have photos with us for the cards. Next time we go (!) we can just top up the cards online or at a ticket machine.

We made our way to the airbnb property we were staying in and after a few minor difficulties trying to get in, found ourselves in a lovely third floor flat which was absolutely perfect for us: and had a piano, which was one reason Bella had insisted on booking it. On the timetable for the Monday was going to the Marie Curie museum, so we had time to go to the supermarket across the road and stock up on some food before heading out again.

What we hadn’t checked was whether it would be open on a Monday; having walked all the way there from one of the metro stations we found it wasn’t! However Bella was delighted to spot a maths bookshop on the way back (we were in the heart of the Sorbonne area), and we had an ice cream before walking through the Jardins de Luxembourg and then through St Germain des Pres, including visiting the church of St Suplice, where apparently Widor (as of the Widor Toccata, used at many weddings) was once the organist.

On the Tuesday we had tickets booked for Versailles, just over an hour away by train but included within our cards (Navigo passes). Changing stations to pick up the RER out to Versailles was probably the closest we got to the Eiffel Tower, which was NOT on Bella’s list of places to go. Versailles was amazing but it was very hot and very busy, and by the time we’d walked all around the palace and then around the gardens as well, we felt disinclined to visit the Trianon as well. It wasn’t the first time we were to say ‘next time we come back’. I was so glad to see inside the palace, however – last time I had decided it was too expensive and the friend I was with and I had just walked down through the gardens for a bit and back up the other side. I wasn’t particularly interested in gardens back then, and I don’t think I had appreciated the amazing piece of engineering that got water to the gardens and then created the various fountains. Bella kept saying that her Dad and her brothers would like it, and I think she’s right. You also completely understand why the French aristocracy and royalty were so unpopular, especially by the time you’ve seen the Louvre as well and read about the Tuileries; and the many other enormous ornately decorated buildings in the city.

Bella’s lunch was an ‘Antoinette’ from the Angelina cafe – a chain of teashops with branches elsewhere in the city (though ‘chain’ makes it sound rather downmarket and as with so many French patisseries, it wasn’t).

We had our own upmarket feast that evening as Bella had even researched cafes and restaurants, and we were booked into Le Chardenoux bistro/brasserie. Not only was the food delicious, but the building is impressive and there is a patisserie and a chocolaterie run by the same chef – Cyril Lignac – at the same road junction (he also has a ‘proper’ restaurant as opposed to a bistro, elsewhere in Paris – but for us this was great as it was within walking distance of where we were staying). We were both excited to find bookshops open late into the evening as we walked back: we went back later in the week and bought books, me treating myself to one of his recipe books, which included the recipes we’d eaten in the bistro.

Wednesday turned out to be even hotter, and we were glad to start the day with a trip to the Catacombs: somewhere else we decided that the boys would like. In many ways it was an amazing regeneration project for its day, and highlights one of the differences between Paris and London. The bones from all the city’s cemetaries were moved into the catacombs, which were originally quarries, largely (as far as I can tell) for health reasons/slum clearance. And of course one of the reason Paris has lovely wide streets and lots of beautiful apartment blocks is because it was designed – whereas unfortunately Christopher Wren’s vision to create something similar in London after the Great Fire in 1666 was not accepted.

We came out from the coolness of the catacombs into the heat of a summer’s day, and were glad to find fountains specially designed for people to stand under and cool down at one of the railway stations, before walking into the Jardin des Plantes. We decided to go into the menagerie, and spent several hours wandering around looking at the animals and trying to keep in the shade: I’d wanted to see the red panda but a lot of the animals felt the same way as us and were also just snoozing in the shade.

We then walked along the Seine and into the Polish centre, to see the Salon de Chopin – where, gratifyingly, the guide spoke to us in French. Previous memories of being in Paris were that the French would speak to you in English because their English was far superior to your French; whilst it is, I really did want to try to speak in French while I was here.

On the Thursday – Bastille Day – we went to the Louvre, where we found that neither of us had remembered our phone. I think for me the most impressive part of the visit was in fact seeing the bits of the original castle, dating from c.1190. We saw many galleries, including Greek sculptures – amazing that they are so many 1000s of years old – and more statues which had been at Versailles or other royal palaces; and also the rooms of Napoleon III. The place is enormous and, as mentioned earlier, a reminder of the excesses of royalty and the extremely wealthy.

There were also some low-flying aircraft of various types during the morning, which I think may have been something to do with Bastille Day – we’d seen them on the Monday as well over the Jardins de Luxembourg. That afternoon we ended up back in the Jardins de Luxembourg again, this time joining a relaxed crowd listening to a police band playing from the bandstand. ‘Music’ was perhaps one of the themes of our week.

During our time in Paris I was impressed by how many cyclists there were – and also scooters. There are wide, dedicated cycle lanes: and also one way streets where there are arrows indicating that cyclists can go in the opposite direction to cars! None of them seems to wear a helmet and in fact on one day there was even a woman on roller blades skating along in the middle of the traffic without seeming the slightest bit worried about how vulnerable she was. The city also seemed really clean: my impression of most French cities 20 or 30 years ago was that there was a lot of dog poo around, but this time I saw hardly any. A lot of the French still smoke though: if you’re sitting outside a cafe you can’t guarantee that there won’t be someone at the next table smoking.

We visited the Cemetiere Pere Lachaise on the morning of our final full day, which was just up the road from where we were staying. One thing I was conscious of was how recent the second world war still feels here, which was something I remember thinking when I lived and worked in France in 1996. It may have been partly as it was an anniversary of the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup – the arrest of more than 13,000 Jews by the gendarmes on 16th and 17th July. There were photos of Auschwitz and other concentration camp survivors along the fence of the Jardins de Luxembourg; and within Pere Lachaise there are some thought-provoking memorials not only to the victims of the camps but also to the resistance.

The final afternoon we found an amazing street of music shops at Europe metro – we had been to a concert of Chopin piano music on the Thursday evening, and Bella wanted to buy some – and walked again for miles looking at shops and the buildings generally: next time I go back I want to go to Opera, and perhaps to Sacre Coeur. It had been an amazing trip and we had both fallen in love with Paris.

Fab. times with Friends

Whether it’s the pandemic or turning 60, I’ve been thinking about what I want from life quite a bit recently. Obviously there are lots of things I want to do: but with two of the children likely to be at the grammar school in Penrith as of next year, and one at University, I’m wondering if it’s time to move to Penrith or near there. I’ve been considering why I like living where I do and came to the decision that it’s the open space and being near the hills and trees.

The worst thing about the pandemic at its worst was the lockdowns, and not being able to see friends. I can cope with not going abroad, but not to be able to go into the Lake District to run or cycle or swim with friends was hard. Fortunately I’ve actually managed to do a lot of that and restrictions on seeing friends were short-lived. But, like when I was expecting Edward and he was a baby and toddler, it also made me appreciate living here: living in the countryside where you don’t have to go shopping and spend money and go into crowded spaces to find fulfilment.

But having all these thoughts is not really any good unless you share them with other people; and I’m lucky enough to have brilliant friends who listen and share their own thoughts in return.

The past two weekends have been particularly fantastic for spending time with friends. Firstly I managed to get Claire out on a bike ride. We stopped for coffee at the Rickerby Retreat – it was the first time I’d ever been in there and we had a lovely cappuccino and scones and decided we’d organise a group of us to go there one evening. I’d also just got a new cycling top from Le Col which I wanted to try out: it’s great and does everything it said it would (shower resistant; breathable; warm).

That evening Penny came round for dinner and stayed over so we could go for a run the next day: we did the lengthened Gelt Woods run, which is about 17km and takes in the ‘Railway Children’ loop. It was a bit wet, but still enjoyable, and good to get in several km ready for Hevellyn on 6th November. I wore my new cycling top, but it wasn’t as good for running – the length at the back rides up and is a bit irritating. But then it wasn’t designed for running, although the fabric would be good for a winter running top.

It was Book Group that afternoon and we were discussing The Overstory (reviewed here by GoodReads) by Richard Powers. Anne had written some brilliant notes which sparked off a lively discussion: some of us had found it quite hard to get into, but most had started loving it as they got into it. The conversation went off at (related) tangents and then came back again and two hours had passed before we stopped chatting away.

On Friday I’d taken a day off work as Hannah had said she’d take me out for lunch as a birthday present. She arrived about 11 and we chatted a bit before heading down towards the Lake District. En route we started talking about meditation and yoga retreats, and instead of going directly to Elterwater – the original plan – I said I’d show her the Buddhist temple near Ulverston. The majority of it was closed to the public but we were able to sneak a quick look at the temple from a distance, and soak up some of the atmosphere.

We then drove up towards Coniston (having stopped at Booths to pick up their Christmas book). The lake looked beautiful, and we stopped to take photos. In one of those moments when you’re thinking the same thing as a friend, we both suggested we swim here rather than at Elterwater. It was sunny, the lake shore was fairly stony, and the lake itself quite shallow along this shoreline so the water was surprisingly warm: warmer than I’d expected. Even so when I put my face in to do front crawl I knew I wouldn’t be able to do so for very long.

As we got out it started trying to rain, but after moments had stopped again. A glorious rainbow came out on the other side of the lake; as we drove away a double rainbow appeared ahead of us, and a well-placed layby meant we were able to stop for more photos (lower 3 photos courtesy of Hannah).

We arrived at Chesters at Skelwith Bridge – one of my favourite cafes and shops of all time – just in time to have a delicious lunch of Colcannon Mac and Cheese, Chocolate and Raspberry Cake, and a drink. It was a fantastic day, with lots of discussion about all sorts of things ranging from work to moving to children to relationships.

On Saturday I had arranged to meet Penny for a swim and a run: having carefully packed all the kit I’d need for swimming, I got to her house and knocked on the door. She opened it – there were her running shoes on the doormat, ready for action. I was wearing my boots and suddenly realised I had completely forgotten to bring either of my pairs of running shoes. Penny’s feet are longer than mine so borrowing a pair of hers wasn’t an option.

We decided to go swimming anyway and rather than going to Moss Eccles Tarn, which had been the original plan (we had been thinking of doing the Hawkshead trail race route), we went to Grasmere. It was a bit rainy and we ended up walking back to the car in our wetsuits, thinking we could change under the semi-protection of the car boot (as it turned out the rain stopped by the time we got back). Grasmere itself was rather on the chilly side – Penny was far braver about doing front crawl than I was – and I think that was probably my last open water swim of the year.

I dropped Penny back to her house and went home, sorted a few things out, and then Penny came up (her husband was away so she had to feed their cat). We drove up to Kershope, which I ran at back in the summer with Anne – and went the wrong way – and had previously run at with Penny back in January, in ice. This time we ran the correct route, which turned out to be about 11km.

On Sunday Anne was coming over for a run so Penny stayed over again and the three of us went out hill training on the Ridge, doing about 7 ascents. Penny then left as she’d had a message from Tim that he was on his way home, and Anne and I chatted for a bit about choir and potentially moving. She said she felt that change was in the air for a lot of people, and I think she’s probably right – I think the pandemic has made a lot of people re-assess their lives and consider where they actually want to live and what they want their lives to look like.

I know that one of the most important things for me is to be able to get out into lovely countryside to cycle, swim and run: but also that these things are definitely more fun when done with friends.

Anne by Penny – 24th October 2021.

Swim, bike, run… hills and water (2)

Arnside to Garsdale Head; Devoke Water

Before describing the bike ride I went on the day after the Ambleside trail race, I should put in a mention of the Mill Yard cafe in Morland. Prior to Covid I’d been here a few times, and always enjoyed it: Penny and Tim live nearby so are fairly regular patrons, in particular for the take-away pizzas on a Friday or Saturday night. I’d be invited to stay at their house after the run, and Penny had suggested we go to the cafe that evening.

Wow! I mean, wow! The best pizza I’ve ever had. The base wasn’t so thin that it had burnt, but nor was it too fat (I don’t like thick doughy bases). It was a perfect balance of thin but just risen enough. And the chef is generous with the cheese – gorgeous stringy mozzarella which produces strands almost like spaghetti, and which, like spaghetti,, you can’t – and shouldn’t be expected – to eat neatly. I also like the fact that you get to choose your own toppings – or you can go for the chef’s own option, which is whatever he feels like at the time. The only problem was that Penny and I shared a garlic bread with mozzarella first, and then struggled to eat more than half a pizza each. Tim, late home, benefitted from having the leftovers… I loved eating in their outside yard as well: it is a genuine old mill building, so is a really attractive building anyway, and the yard makes a great outdoor eating area.

The following morning my quads were aching a bit but we had breakfast and then headed off to drop Penny’s car at Garsdale Head before Tim took us and our bikes to Arnside. The weather looked promising: it was still quite muggy but it was dry. It was a relief that Tim had helped out, as it would have meant an awful lot of to-ing and fro-ing at the end of what turned out to be quite a demanding bike ride if we’d then had to drive back to the start to pick up a second car.

Arnside is lovely, but I always find Morecambe Bay and the various estuaries that empty into a bit bizarre. I grew up near the Severn/Bristol Channel, which has one of the highest tidal differences in the world, so you’d think I’d be used to seeing the sea disappear into the distance. I think perhaps what is different about Morecambe Bay is being aware that the tide can come in very, very fast – drownings are not unusual – so I’m always slightly on tenterhooks near it. A siren sounded while we were in the car park unloading our bikes and I wasn’t at all sure that it didn’t mean that the tide was about to rush in and wash us all away.

The initial part of the ride was along fairly flat country lanes. There are a lot of nature reserves and so forth in this area and not a lot of development. It’s not an area I know terribly well, being at the opposite end of Cumbria from where I live, but I do have the experience of having valued Silverdale fire station, just down the coast into Lancashire (if you ever want to see a slightly unusual fire station, that’s the one). Like much of Cumbria you do feel that you are quite a long way from anywhere, although we crossed both the A6 and the M6 as we made our way in an easterly direction along the Cumbria/Lancashire border.

A climb uphill between trees led to a great view in a southerly direction, before going through Hutton Roof (a place whose name has always intrigued me – we didn’t stop to look but apparently it’s got great limestone pavement/crags) and then descending to Kirkby Lonsdale. As we started to go down hill Penny got a bee in her bonnet – sorry, I mean in her helmet – just as three girls of about half our age came up the hill in the opposite direction, looking as if the climb was no effort for them whatsoever.

Kirkby Lonsdale is great. I’d only passed through there before, and not seen the town centre, which has a lovely old market cross – where we stopped and ate ice cream – and also a river which looks like a great place to swim. Definitely worth a return visit sometime.

The route now took us up past Barbon Hall and into Barbondale, which was absolutely beautiful and also really enjoyable cycling. We stopped at a bridge which had been rebuilt after Storm Desmond, doing our usual thing en route of exclaiming how stunning it all was and how lucky we are to live in Cumbria.

We had been gradually and almost imperceptibly climbing, and eventually had a glorious run down into Dentdale before turning eastwards into Dent itself. There were quite a lot of people about – it’s a lovely little village and it looked as if it had some good cafes (they were beginning to close as it was about 4pm on a Sunday afternoon) – and we stopped to use the very good public toilets before bumping over the cobbles and then going downhill some more.

After this our route took us along Dentdale before, at Cowgill, a hamlet at the end of the valley, climbing steeply uphill towards Dent station – about 4 and a half miles away from the actual village of Dent and the highest operational railway station in England. The hill from the valley bottom up to the station had us both beaten – at one point I got back on and started cycling again, but not for long. The station, like Garsdale Head, lies on the Carlisle-Settle line, an amazing – and rather crazy – feat of engineering which was incredibly expensive to build as it has so many tunnels and viaducts. Not surprisingly it suffered when the main west coast line was built; nowadays when you travel on this line you can buy a short history of the railway (although as I haven’t travelled on it for a while I don’t know if Covid has put a stop to that).

After Dent station Penny managed to get back on her bike, but I walked a bit further, until the road levelled out a bit and rolled across some glorious open fell with amazing views all around. Finally there was a steep, fast descent down to Garsdale Head and the car. I had, over a period of time, finally cycled round the whole of Cumbria (we’ve missed a couple of miles in a couple of places to be honest). However we have one more ‘stage’ we both want to do: to cycle from Melmerby up to Alston and then down to Brampton.

The weather finally changed from being overcast and muggy to being sunny, and my legs recovered from their two days of hills. I posted a group message to see if anybody wanted to swim and got several positive replies and some enthusiasm for Devoke Water, which must be one of the furthest west of the Lake District tarns: it took over two hours to drive there. However, it was completely worthwhile.

We turned off the main road at Greenodd towards Broughton in Furness, and then up the Duddon Valley. Some of the open water swimming books recommend the river here, but it looked quite low and also there were a lot of people. We turned to go up towards Birker Fell, crossing some cattle grids and coming out above trees into open fells which looked almost Alpine today. There’s no proper car park but there was enough verge to park on and the tarn is then a short walk along a track. It was absolutely stunning, and we found a beach with a stony entry to the water. It was shallow for quite a way out, before steeply sloping away underwater. Jo and Anne started to swim up to the far end – probably about 1km away – and I zigzagged a bit before thinking about swimming to the island. I didn’t make it as I got a bit bored with not being able to see much below me, and also the island kept looking as if it was not getting any closer.

After a picnic a few of us got back in for a short while – partly to admire the perch I’d initially spotted and got very excited about. Even the most cautious of us swam without wetsuits and it was almost warmer in the water than out in the breeze. There was a lot of merriment and plans for all sorts of other events – we’ve decided that we need to do a breakfast swim in Bassenthwaite with bacon sandwiches, and we talked about having ‘Crab Fest’ at Devoke Water next July as so many in the group are cancerians.

Swim, bike, run… hills and water (1)

ABC: Buttermere, Ambleside and the River Caldew

There’s a reason Buttermere is so popular. The 4-mile walk around the lake is a fairly level, easy one, with a fun tunnel; the landscape is pretty; and there are good places to eat, drink and get ice cream. Parking is, as a result, often horrendous – so when Anne and I decided to go down there a couple of weekends ago, we weren’t quite sure what we’d find.

In fact we found a parking space with no problem, in the Lake District National Park pay & display car park – which also has toilets. The parking has maybe been helped somewhat by the fact that the farmer at the south-eastern end of the lake has opened up a couple of fields for parking – a the reasonable charge of about £5 (maybe £6) per day. As Laura and I had agreed when we went down to Lancrigg/Grasmere, I have no objection to paying for parking in busy places; likewise I have no objection to paying for the toilets if they’re kept clean.

Anne and I had agreed we’d run round the lake and then swim in it. It was an overcast day and quite muggy, and when I’d picked her up her husband had said there were thunderstorms on the way. With this in mind I had packed my waterproof jacket and two towels in case one got too wet. I was, I thought, prepared for everything.

The run round the lake is really lovely. We went round in an anti-clockwise direction, through the woods along the southern shore to start with. You then cross open land at the end of the lake before having to do a short section on road – a bit hairy as the road is fairly narrow so there is hardly room for two cars to pass each other, let alone pass each other and pedestrians. People were swimming from stony beaches as we dropped back down on to the track away from the road; it looked inviting: and the sun was coming out and beginning to burn away the cloud.

Anne loved the tunnel, which just adds a bit of individual quirkiness to this particular run. After that there’s another mile or so through trees – unfortunately the National Trust seems to have closed off the track which goes around the lake shore – then through the yard of the ice cream farm before getting back to the car park.

We then went for a swim from the north western beach. It was great – it’s incredibly shallow (deep enough for swimming) with beautifully clear water above a stony bed. I found I’d forgotten my swimsuit; Anne had forgotten her wetsuit. She went in in her swimsuit with a t-shirt over it and I went in in my running gear. At a very rough estimate we swam about 600m across almost to the other side and back, and then went for a late lunch at Croft House Farm cafe, which I would highly recommend.

A week later and I was in Ambleside, slightly nervously awaiting the start of the Lakeland Trails Ambleside 14km trail run. I hadn’t done many long runs and had been really struggling – I think with the warm weather – so I wasn’t at all sure how I’d feel. Penny had come along as ‘support crew’, and it was great to have someone to talk to and to look out for me along the course and at the end – the staggered starts mean that it’s relatively quiet and a bit strange hanging around at the start, and can be a bit flat at the end.

Whereas with the Coniston half she almost missed me at Tarn Howes because I’d run faster than expected, this time she was wondering where I’d got to at Rydal Water as I took longer than she’d expected. I found it a tough race – not only was it warm but the run takes you uphill out of Ambleside to High Sweden Bridge before a stunning but rocky downhill down through Rydal Hall and across the road to run alongside Rydal Water. At this point we met up with another race, the Breca Coniston swimrun. Running in wetsuits looks hard (and hot), though the swimming bit would be a nice cool down on a day like this – at least, a nice gentle swim would be. I guess a race swim is less cooling.

Penny and I then drove up past Mungrisdale to have a dip in the river Caldew: something I’ve wanted to do since I first saw the waterfalls and so forth last year. It was chilly, but invigorating – and doubtless good for my sore muscles – and just as we were getting changed the heavens opened, torrentially. I leapt into the car to finish changing – several days later I found my swimsuit under my seat…

Walking, swimming, singing…

Having done the half marathon, I found my enthusiasm or motivation to run had waned a little: even though there are still 7 trail races still to do (the next is the Ambleside 14km on 10th July). I gave blood, which always takes it out of me for a few days, and was working towards my ARSM (Associate of the Royal Schools of Music) exam – a half hour recital. My car – 12 years old – failed its MOT quite drastically as well, so I had to sort out hire cars and buying a new car.

Bella was due to do her Grade 7 piano exam but that morning I had a call from her school saying she needed to self-isolate. She came home, disappointed, but her teacher said that he was confident she would have passed and that she could start to work on Grade 8 instead, though he’d like her to do more performing prior to sitting it. I think it’s partly as whereas for lessons you can make all sorts of excuses for why your playing isn’t fantastic and why you haven’t had time to do as much practice as desired, when you’re performing you have to be at your best. She was also disappointed recently not to get into CAT (Centre for Advanced Training) at the Sage Gateshead – but as much as anything it’s partly as she’s a pianist and not an orchestral player. It’s a pity and I’m sure she’d have loved it, but at least it means we’re not having to get her over to Newcastle every Sunday: and she can try again next year.

My ARSM recital was in the Fratry at Carlisle Cathedral. I hadn’t sung in there since the Music Festival several years ago, when Deborah and I sang the cat duet in there (and came 2nd). With only the examiner and my accompanist in there in addition to me, my voice resonated loudly in the space: which in many ways was a relief as I didn’t need to worry about it carrying. I attach a copy of my programme below – I’m hoping at some point to record it and put it up on YouTube; and I’m doing the Faure again at Christmas in the Solway Singers’ concert at Lanercost.

I may have lacked motivation to run, but the good weather has meant wild swimming has been pleasant. One Saturday afternoon Laura and I walked to Easedale Tarn, which was one of the lakes yet to be ‘ticked off’ on my list. We parked at Lancrigg – the hotel lets you park there for £6, which you get refunded if you buy something in their cafe – and walked up the side of Sourmilk Gill to the Tarn. It’s a lovely walk and the tarn is a good size for swimming; I swam across to a rock that was near to the further side, only getting slightly panicky about the weeds around the rock (I hate the feeling of weeds brushing my legs, and I’m always worried they’re going to ensnare me and I’ll drown). As we left to walk back down – a slightly longer route which crossed over to come down a different beck – the sun came out, creating a lovely reflection in the still water.

A couple of days later a group of us decided to swim in Bowscale Tarn to mark the summer solstice (we chose 21st June rather than the Stonehenge choice of 20th). I found the water quite cold, although Tricia stayed in for ages in just her swimsuit. Penny also tried without her wetsuit and got out again quite quickly! We were incredibly lucky with the weather – after a dull start to the day, the sun came out for our evening walk and swim. It’s possibly one of my favourite tarns as despite the fact that it can be quite chilly as it’s overshadowed by high fells, it’s not weedy. I also love the way that you suddenly come across it – it’s hidden from view until almost the last moment.

Another Tarn which is hidden from view until you crest the brow (from either direction) is Sprinkling Tarn. I’d wanted to return to it since Penny and I had swum there (https://runningin3time.wordpress.com/2021/05/23/sty-head-and-sprinkling-tarns/) and when Jo and Mike came to stay after a weekend in York, it seemed like the perfect opportunity. I hadn’t fully appreciated how hard they might find the walk, so I wasn’t the most popular of people that day, but overall I think they felt that they’d done something memorable. I swam without a wetsuit, although it took a few moments for me to adjust to the water temperature – but again there were lots of weeds. I wonder if it’s just the time of year and if the weeds have been growing a lot? They certainly have in my garden.

I had travelled down to York by train after my ARSM recital/exam, to meet up with Jo and Mike and also Caroline. We had a lovely weekend in York – Caroline and I ran along the river; we all went on a boat trip; and we went to Jorvik, as well as shopping and eating (and drinking). Jo and Mike then gave me a lift home, stopping at Barnard Castle en route and then driving across the North Pennines, which is a beautiful and spacious if remote landscape.

They then stayed for a week, and whilst I had things to sort out like buying a new car and doing the school run, we had time not only to do the walk to Sprinkling Tarn but also to go to Lanercost, Carlisle and Birdoswald. It was brilliant to have friends to stay and to show off some of the lovely places locally: and it made me realise that if people come up here on holiday they don’t necessarily then want to travel miles, but to see what’s around here. It might not be the Lake District but it is still a stunning part of the world, and it made me appreciate once more how lucky I am to live here. And Jo managed to get a really funny panorama of Mike and me up above Haytongate…

As a final note, I can highly recommend the cafe at Lanercost, under new ownership. It looks as if their website is still under construction, so I can’t post a link at the moment, although it does look as if they have a new Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/Lanercost-Tea-Rooms-and-Gift-Shop-103878225199009

Going places

We now have ‘the rule of 6’ (or two households) indoors and can hug our friends. Life feels pretty normal, despite the obligatory facemasks, social distancing, track and trace and doing Lateral Flow tests. Certainly our cities, towns and roads seem busy. I can’t remember last May half term – I was furloughed and the kids were being home-schooled when it wasn’t half term – but this May half term has seemed like any ‘normal’ half term. We may not have so many international visitors here, but then neither are UK residents going abroad, instead choosing to explore their own countries.

I rather get the impression that people are getting somewhat fatigued with WhatsApp and virtual communication and are keen to get out and about; particularly to see friends and family in the flesh. It’s helped by the lovely weather which has suddenly – thank goodness – started. Only two weeks ago Penny and I were swimming in Sprinkling and Sty Head Tarns and feeling cold, even in wetsuits; when out running I never knew whether I was going to get soaking wet and be too hot or too cold. Fortunately the sun came out and the weather grew warm, just in time for the half term holiday.

The first trip out was nothing unusual. Bella and I drove down to the western side of Windermere, to find the car park at Wray full but a car on the side of the road just leaving. We slipped into the space and walked down to the lake, which was not only busy with people picnicking and playing games along the shore but also with boats, paddleboards and a horse (which was really enjoying having a splash in the shallow waters of a small bay). The others arrived bit by bit and put on wetsuits; the water was fairly warm and after a bit I peeled off my wetsuit and just went in in my swimsuit. We then lingered in the sun chatting, eating and drinking. Credit for the photos to Mark Britton.

My sister Rachel and her boyfriend Ross then came up on Bank Holiday Monday to stay for the week. Bella was keen to go to Edinburgh to buy pointe shoes so I had booked us into the Ibis Styles hotel in St Andrews Square, and Rachel and Ross had then booked in as well. We travelled up by train and had time to drop our bags off and admire the hotel before meeting Anne at the Scott Memorial. The hotel ticked all the boxes – central; nice rooms (especially the one Bella and I were sharing, which had a bay window with a view of the square and a small sofa in the bay); friendly staff; and good value for money.

After meeting Anne we had lunch in the cafe at the National Gallery, which has an outdoor terrace overlooking Princes Street Gardens (as well as an indoor area); we then walked all the way down to Stockbridge as Anne and Rachel were keen to go to Toast. On the way back we walked past my aunt Janet’s flat in the New Town: when she died we inherited some money, which enabled me to buy my grand piano and also contributed towards a large proportion of my house.

Anne, Bella and I then went shopping. Having a daughter is expensive; having bought her some new clothes in Princes Street, the next day we went to buy pointe shoes and a new leotard for dancing. Walking back we went through the Meadows, which was a part of the city I’d never seen before, and past the University. Bella loved Edinburgh and is now thinking that she might do her clinical year there after her undergraduate medical degree… she’s not yet 16 so her plans may change, though the plan to go to Edinburgh for her 16th birthday probably won’t.

We went to Amarone for dinner that night, generously funded by our Mum. I rashly promised Bella that I’d take her and two of her friends there for her 16th birthday. These photos were taken in the restaurant by Rachel. The food and the cocktails were superb.

The next day we also went to the Botanic Gardens and Valvona and Crolla, before seeing Bella off at the station – she was meeting her Dad and co. to go camping. Rachel, Ross and I headed up into the Old Town and found a tapas bar called Piggs where we had more delicious food and drink before catching our own train.

Edinburgh is a beautiful city and the centre is walkable: if I had to live in a city it would be one of my first choices and always has been, although it’s expensive (I reckoned I could afford a one-bedroom flat). However once we got home and I took Rachel and Ross out on a ‘local tour’, I remembered how much I love living where I do. Ross hadn’t seen Hadrian’s Wall properly before so we went to Chesters Roman Fort. We were then planning on swimming in the river Tyne; having picnicked near Chesters on the banks of the river, I didn’t really fancy swimming there and we decided to go into Hexham to Waitrose and then drive across country to Featherstone. Rachel and Ross prefer more wooded, rolling hills to the rather rugged landscape we have up here, although they admired its openness and space.

They both loved swimming in the south Tyne though, when we eventually found somewhere to park the car and where we could access the river (the road we had wanted to go down was closed, so we stopped a mile or so south of Featherstone itself). I didn’t even bother to put my wetsuit on – it took a while to get used to the water temperature but once I was in I really enjoyed it and swam up and down a few times. It was too shallow to swim much, but very enjoyable: beautifully clear water so you could see the stones clearly, and small black and white fish. Ross’s reaction was much the same as Hannah’s when she had swum at Broomlee Lough – sheer delight – which was gratifying. There really is something profoundly thrilling about wild swimming: it’s partly the closeness to nature; partly the physical tingling sensation of the cold, crystal clear water on your skin; but also, partly, I think, the sense of achievement of having actually done it, particularly when the water is so cold that you have to grit your teeth to get in. I’m looking forward to swimming more and further throughout the summer.

Return to the Lake District

With lockdown and the Government exhorting us to ‘stay home/stay local’, I felt that perhaps going into the Lake District was going a little bit far. However as things have begun to relax a little bit and as they’re encouraging you to drive 40 miles for a Covid vaccination, I began to think that perhaps driving to the edges of the Lake District, close to Penrith, or to Whinlatter Forest, where I have a membership parking pass, might be permissible.

I’m also trying to get further afield on my bike, and having rediscovered my Ordnance Survey book Cycle Tours – Cumbria and the Lakes – I was keen to try out more of the routes. I’ve long wanted to do the bike ride ‘around the back of Blencathra’ so was pleased to discover that one route did exactly that.

Instead of meeting in the middle of Keswick, Penny and I decided we’d meet at the eastern end of the route at a car park we’ve used when we’ve run up towards Bowscale. It was a beautiful sunny Sunday and cars filled the parking places at Mungrisdale and lined the road further up the valley, but as I went further north there were fewer cars, and the car park we’d chosen was empty other than our two Volvos.

I can honestly say I think this is one of the best bike rides I have ever done. Of course the weather helped, but also the route was quite varied, traversing open fells to Hesket Newmarket…

passing little-known Over Water…

cutting along quiet country lanes near Bassenthwaite village and lake…

spinning along the old railway line from Keswick to Threlkeld (shared with pedestrians, so no racing along there)…

and finally cutting along a gated road up and over the hills and back to the start.

Unfortunately I’d left my phone at home so I was unable to record how far we’d gone and unable to take photos. Penny’s Garmin however told us we’d done about 52km (32 miles) and she’s far better at photography than I am anyway (NB. credit for all the photos above to Penny).

We stopped at The Old Sawmill Tea room for a delicious hot chocolate and flapjack, enjoying our take-aways in the sun and glad to see that the toilets were open.

Penny’s had an ankle injury recently and hasn’t been running much, but a week after the above bike ride she felt ready to do a long run. I suggested Whinlatter, which has a plethora of trails but also has a marked 10km route, which I’ve written about us running over the Christmas period.

The temperature had plummeted since last weekend and there was snow on the fell tops as I drove south down the motorway, firstly to drop my youngest as his Dad’s in Penrith and then to turn to the west to ascend to Whinlatter. It was more-or-less exactly 3 months since I’d last run there and I’d forgotten how hilly the course is – whereas my average route locally entails about 60-120m of elevation, this one gains 308m: mostly over two quite long climbs. It also is NOT quite 10km according to Strava – the three times I’ve run it it’s measured around 9.2km, except that this time I ran around the car park at the end to bring it up to 10km.

Penny told me about helicopter tree logging that had been carried out this week, which got some press coverage: the recently sawn trunks were still burnished and the stacked up logs we passed still had that lovely smell of freshly cut wood. I should point out, that the felling was necessary: it’s terribly sad to see great swathes of wood cut down, but the larch has suffered from Phytophthora Ramorum. The video shows how the timberjacks had to remove the tops of the trees first as the helicopter has a restricted load; and the helicopter and felling crew are Swiss experts because we don’t have that expertise in the UK. I’ll add another video here which shows how tiny the helicopter appears.

As the (extremely good) cafe at Whinlatter was closed even for take aways, we went back to Dodd Woods to the Old Sawmill Tearoom. This time I had cappuccino while Penny had hot chocolate, and we had some absolutely gorgeous lemon drizzle cake – not only did it have the drizzle on top but also had lemon curd between two layers of sponge, and was gloriously lemony. And, as we’d been less than 20 minutes, parking was free!

I drove back home across Caldbeck Fell, retracing part of the route I’d cycled just a week earlier, and feeling happy.

Meanwhile, if anyone hasn’t yet seen my ‘starring’ role in a film, I attach a link here. I should add that you don’t need a subscription – you just need to click on the ‘play’ button when it appears on the picture (it takes a moment or two to appear).

Reminiscent of Simonside…

…but SO much more fun! Third time lucky for Loughrigg Fell.

When the two older kids were quite young, we had a holiday in Ambleside (in fact we had quite a few holidays in Ambleside – this was a summer holiday and I think Edward must have been about 1 or 2). We attempted a walk up Loughrigg Fell, but Alex – unusually for him as he’s normally pretty stoic – was lagging, so he and I turned round and went back down to the house.

Then a few months ago my friend Jo and I thought we’d do a walk which would take in Loughrigg Tarn, Loughrigg Terrace and then come back up over the fell. We had Edward with us, who complained bitterly and lagged behind from the beginning: as a result we got as far as Lily Tarn and then turned round and went back down.

When it turned out that both Penny and I were free for a run this Sunday morning, and that it meant I could pick up the kids from their Dad’s house in Penrith on the way back home, I suggested we try this route. We started in Rothay Park with our fingers crossed that it wasn’t going to rain the entire time: ascending the steep initial hill (Penny at a jog, me mostly walking) quickly warmed us up and then we were out on the Fell, on a fairly easy stony path which led to Loughrigg Tarn.

I hadn’t been to the Tarn for many years, since David and I had brought Alex and Bella up here one summer’s day. It was bigger than I remembered, and it’s one on the list of tarns that we’re going to swim in to mark Anne’s 60th birthday year. Today wasn’t the best day for admiring the lake, but I loved the neat stone culvert that had been provided for one of the streams leading down to it.

Having crossed the road, a dog tried to get us tied up in his lead as we went through the gate. A rocky path ensued, wending its meandering, undulating way through some trees. As we came out at the other side I slipped in some mud: and not only fell over but then slid a couple of feet. I had wet mud all the way up my right hand side and could feel it through all my layers of clothes. This was the first thing which was reminiscent of Simonside (Duergar Nightcrawler), where people were sliding around in mud from early on in the run. At least today it wasn’t snowing.

We joined the road again for a short distance before turning off amongst the trees again towards Loughrigg Terrace. There was a lovely view of Grasmere and the river leading towards Rydal Water, and we could have carried on along here and round the hill to go back to Ambleside: but I particularly wanted to get up to the top of Loughrigg.

We turned up some stone steps which led steeply uphill, again reminiscent of Simonside but at least today it was light and the stones weren’t covered in ice. Even so it was steep enough and the steps irregular and mostly high enough to make running up there more or less impossible – unless you’re a mountain goat or a very fit fell runner. We walked. Towards the top we saw the dog which had tried to tie himself round us earlier, with his owner.

There were a few people gathered around the cairn, but nobody was hanging around long as the wind was blowing rather wildly – I thought about taking the map out but decided against it in case it just blew away (it rather looks as if my hair was trying to blow off my head). We just made a rough guess at which way we needed to descend, which fortunately turned out to be right.

I was really enjoying this run, unlike Simonside – I think being able to see helped, and not having sleet and snow blowing at you sideways. I was warmer, despite being wet, and felt more confident running downhill despite the wetness and, in places, slipperiness of the ground: and some of the particularly technical descents weren’t covered in ice.

From the cairn it was more or less downhill all the way, having to wade through various streams which had created grassy pools and where you weren’t quite sure how deep you were going to sink in – in fact mostly we were fine (and we both have goretex running shoes). Before long we could see a recognisable clump of trees ahead of us – one of the gates on the track leading back down to Rothay Park. It was only a short run downhill from there and we were back by the river Rothay, the grey day brightened by some kayakers. A kind father offered to take a photo of us as I struggled with my selfie angles, with the kayakers in the background.

I had initially thought of buying a new pair of running leggings in Ambleside so that I could wear something dry to a cafe: in fact we decided to head straight back to the car and go to the community cafe at Threlkeld, which will have featured before in my posts: I put my long down coat on and that protected the seats from the mud on my trousers. After a tasty bowl of Thai sweet potato and coriander soup with a cheese scone and a cappuccino, it was time to get back to Penrith and to pick up my kids.

The coronavirus might limit how far and how much people travel, but at least I can get out in the hills without worrying too much about infecting other people – I hope.

Northumberland

Easter was stunning this year.  Days of sunshine and warm weather; the Lake District honeypots were bustling with people: walkers with their poles, families with their dogs, children and cars… it took us an hour to get on to the Windermere ferry, Isabella complaining about the wait but Edward and I keen to enjoy the quirky journey – which in fact was probably still quicker than driving around the wiggly lanes, reversing every so often into a passing place, squeezing past cars and cyclists, queuing to get through Ambleside… 

I love the Lakes even when they’re busy.  I think 15 years of living in London has inured me to queues and traffic – it was always quicker to cycle than to drive in London, especially in the rush hour.  So complaints about how busy the Lake District gets tend to make me smile internally in a superior sort of fashion and to say to myself ‘you’ve obviously never lived in London’ (the same applies to people who think that they have to have a house with a garage….).  I do wish, however, that the economic benefits brought to the Lake District – indeed to Cumbria as a whole – by the visitors were balanced by more environmental benefits.  The various authorities are making efforts (more buses; buses with bike racks; reminders about not walking where you shouldn’t, keeping your dogs on leads near livestock, not dropping litter) but I can’t help thinking how wasteful we humans are.  I’m as guilty as any – I drive to the Lake District, I buy food in cafes, some of which have plastic straws or plastic single use pots, I trample the various paths… (apparently I saved approximately 25 miles by taking the ferry rather than driving – a mere drop in the Environmental ocean…).

One of the things about the Lake District is the narrow windy, undulating roads with stone walls on either side.  Cycling doesn’t particularly appeal to me, unless at least some of the roads could be made car-free (maybe that’s the answer?). Whilst I would love to be out on my bike, if I fall off I might fall into a wall; alternatively I could be suddenly squashed into a wall or knocked off my bike by a car – or van – coming too fast round a corner and not seeing me until it was too late.  That’s not to say I wouldn’t cycle in the Lake District, but I can see what deters people.

Northumberland on the other hand is perfect cycling country.  On Easter Monday I went eastwards to drop a bike off to a friend near Corbridge.  From there I drove more or less due north along back routes to the A697 to go to Wooler.  All day in Northumberland I was to see cyclists, singly and in groups.  Even the quieter roads are relatively wide with grass verges, and many of them have long straight sections, providing great visibility (the grass verges also mean that if you fall off you’ll have a slightly softer landing than against a stone wall).  What’s missing of course are the high fells and the lakes: but the Cheviots are beautiful and provide stunning views, including to the North Sea.

Today was colder and windier than the past few days had been but there was still a heat haze in the distance.  At Wooler I parked in a free car park near the Tourist Centre (in what seemed to be a rather nice community centre) and walked up the road towards the hamlet of Humbleton.  I crossed over a field adjoining a campsite – and through a bower of white flowered bushes into the next field.  There were some beautiful cottages at Humbleton and I paused to admire them before taking a left-hand track slightly uphill towards the hill itself, stopping again to read the interpretation panel about the battle of Humbleton Hill – which happened on my birthday but in 1402 (does anyone else ever feel that things happening on their birth date feels significant?).  The ravine which would have been useful to corralling cattle was clear on my right, and I stood on a grassy knoll trying to imagine what it would have felt like to have seen the battle taking place.  I wonder if archaeology was carried out whether there would be any remains of soldiers’ bones or artefacts?  Were the fields soaked red with the blood of the Scottish soldiers that day?  Apparently English losses were minimal: the English archers efficiently slaughtered most of the Scottish.

The track to the top of the hill bends to the south west and continues to climb – a grassy route and presumably ancient.  Would the Iron Age people who lived here have walked this route before me, all those centuries ago?  The wind was strong and lent an exhilarating chill to the air, but when in sheltered sunny areas warmth soaked into your being.  Internal cobwebs were blown away one moment, to be replaced by warmth and well-being the next.   What an amazing place to have lived, albeit exposed. 

I had particularly wanted to visit this hill fort since picking up a leaflet about it in a visitor centre somewhere else.  I remember going to a hill fort in the south – I think it may have been Cadbury – as a child and being singularly unimpressed whilst my mother raved on about how amazing it was.  To me it was just grassy mounds and some trees on top of a hill.  Humbleton Hill is different, and far more exciting – though I’m not sure that my children would be any more excited than I was as a child.  The remains of the inner and outer enclosure walls can be seen at the top, and clear grass circles of where the huts were situated.  In the distance you could see the North Sea and could understand why people would have wanted to live here.  You could see for miles around, and any unwanted guests would be spotted climbing the hill in plenty of time to work out what to do about them.

At the top the National Park has built a cairn (made with bits of the old enclosure walls???  Presumably not) and then provided thick planks of wood to sit on.  Several people were up there – someone spoke to me but the wind just threw her words away from me, although she seemed to hear what I said in reply all right.

Coming down the hill, and as I was wearing my trail running shoes – even though I was otherwise in normal clothes, including jeans – I couldn’t help but run for a bit, my heart singing in my chest, wondering again if Iron Age people had done the same.  The grassy track just invited it – if I’d been in running gear I’d have spread my arms and run down, the closest to flying on the ground that a human being can get! 

I chose then to take the slightly longer route back to Wooler through some woods (the path through them is part of St Cuthbert’s Way, another route I’d like to walk or run) and then over Wooler Common, which the Forestry Commission have turned into a lovely and educational wildlife habitat.  I got back to the car with time to get to Wallington (National Trust) before closing time.  Here nature has been tamed to an extent, but I loved the walk through the woodland to the walled garden and back and the vivid splashes of colour provided by spring flowers. And whilst the café only had egg and cress sandwiches left, it was pleasant to sit in the Courtyard Café and watch people enjoying the good weather: lazing in deckchairs; picnicking on the grass; chatting at the cafe tables; playing football or frizbee.  In my opinion the National Trust has improved its ‘offer’ vastly over the past decade or two, and there are several properties in this part of the world where you could spend several hours on a visit – Cragside, just up the road from Wallington, is another.

I drove home along the old military road to be met by my oldest son as I turned into my road.  He had been at cadet camp and been promoted, and having not seen him much over the past few weeks it was pleasant to spend an hour or so with him. It had been a glorious Easter.