Cumbria Way in pieces (part 5)

Looking at the map (but not in much detail), the next stage of the Cumbria way looked shorter at around 16km, as if it was going to be a bit wiggly and potentially trickier to navigate, but also very pretty.

Whilst the weather had got a lot colder – we’d had snow mid-week – it was at least dry and the forecast for Sunday was also dry, at least until about 5pm. Penny and I met in the car park at Old Dungeon Ghyll, from which we’d started our previous 25km run to Keswick, and drove down to Coniston in my car. The car parks weren’t as busy as they had been previously, which was a bit surprising considering that the Easter holidays have just started – but which also made it far easier to park.

Leaving the centre of Coniston we turned on to a footpath which led across part of the former Monk Coniston estate, and soon saw a folly. Fortunately there was some great interpretation inside it, which not only told us about the estate generally, and how much of the landscape had been created by the family who owned the estate in the 19th century, but also that this particular folly had been created to mimic medieval dog kennels.

We dropped down towards Low Yewdale from where the path crossed fields and went through woods towards Tarn Hows, again man-made but one of the prettiest tarns in the lake district. Penny and I have both run the Coniston half marathon a couple of times (and she has done the full marathon) so we’ve run around Tarn Hows before, but we hadn’t approached it and left it on the same paths as today. The Cumbria Way leaves the tarn near to its northernmost point and after running past a field of Belted Galloways, we were on an old county byroad: and having to jump on to the verge to let a convoy of 4x4s go past.

We were truly in the heart of the Lake District today, mostly on glorious rolling gravelly paths which undulated through woods, or on grassy paths crossing rolling fields. Whereas going from Langdale north to Keswick had meant crossing stunning but quite isolated land, today’s route was chocolate-box-lakeland prettiness.

At Hollin Bank we didn’t follow the road but crossed through Tongue Intake Plantation before realising our ‘mistake’ and doing an extra loop to take us past Colwith Force – a waterfall on the beck which runs from Little Langdale tarn to Elter Water. Before long the path brings you out near to Skelwith Bridge, where a modern metal bridge crosses the river Brathay. For a time now I was on familiar ground: I can’t remember the number of times, when the children were young, that we’d bring visitors down to Skelwith Bridge and walk from there along to Elterwater, or vice versa: at least if they’d comply. I do remember one day when Isabella refused to walk and after a bit David and I ended up carrying her on our shoulders, before turning round and going back to the cafe!

I love the lakeland slate: it has a greeny tinge to it (especially the Honister slate) and makes the water have a similarly clear, greeny tinge. You can see it above in the water under the bridge in Elterwater village, but it was even more obvious when we again took an unintended detour up to the Burlington Stone quarry. Here I was acutely conscious of the industrial side of Cumbria: much is hidden nowadays but the entire county would have echoed with the sounds of quarrying and mining at one point. This is still a working quarry, which you don’t notice as you pass your touristic way from Elterwater and Chapel Stile up to Great Langdale: now I know it’s there I can imagine I shall be looking out for the huge hills of stone every time I drive that way. For all that it’s man made, it’s rather stunning, and a direct connection with the old quarries and mines which you see on walks or which have become visitor attractions. It also feels like a deep-rooted link to the Vikings and even earlier peoples, who created axe heads from the stone in the Langdale (‘long valley’) valley which were possibly traded at Castlerigg Stone circle, outside Keswick over the hills to the north (I wonder if some of those traders followed the route that Penny and I had run a couple of weeks ago?).

Although we had managed to veer off the Cumbria Way, I’m glad we saw this. We had an option of following this other footpath on further towards Great Langdale or dropping down past a campsite to rejoin the Cumbria way as it ran alongside the Great Langdale Beck, and chose to rejoin the Cumbria way. After some undulations up and down the lower slopes of Oak Howe Needle, at the foot of Lingmoor Fell, we finally dropped down the hillside and crossed the river to come out at the New Dungeon Ghyll (Stickle Barn). Once again we detoured slightly from the Cumbria way and followed a path through fields and back to Penny’s car.

We’d completed almost 20km along a lovely route which I would really like to do again sometime. It had all that is prettiest about the Lake District: views of the fells, woods, stony paths, clear-watered streams, and plenty of Herdwick sheep to look at. I didn’t take any photos of the herdies unfortunately but I love their sturdy legs, the curly hair on their thick tails, and their friendly, smiley faces. No wonder ‘Herdy’ has become such a popular brand: and not only does the Herdy website sell all their fab. stuff, but it also tells you about contour lines: https://www.herdy.co.uk/did-ewe-know/contour-lines-mysterious-squiggly-lines-on-maps/.

Next time: Coniston to Ulverston.

Coniston and a Castle

When I entered the entire Lakeland Trails series of races, I had intended to start with shorter races and build up. Covid regulations put paid to that with Staveley 18km being the first race. Having had it in my head that 25km was the equivalent of a half marathon (13.2 miles), I was desperately trying to increase my mileage prior to the race: then I realised that in fact the 17 and 18km runs I’d been doing were actually not far short of a half marathon, which is in fact just under 21 km. I breathed a sigh of relief and relaxed.

One thing I remembered from having done the Coniston half before, and from when Penny did the marathon, was that it is often very warm. Furthermore I could also remember a fairly long flat track at the end of the race, covered in a whiteish gravel, which just reflected the sun back to you and made it feel even warmer.

Sure enough it was a sunny day but I tried to start running fairly steadily, using a girl who had started just ahead of me as a pacer. I walked some hills, falling back behind my pacer, who I then caught up with again on the downhills – I was later to overtake both her and another girl I also had used as a pacer. I don’t know whether either of them realised that there was a middle-aged woman behind them, deliberately using them this way, but at least it worked!

Quite a lot of the run takes place on tarmac, but it wouldn’t be a Lakeland Trail without some beautiful gravelly tracks which undulate – both up and down and side to side – through trees. By about mile 10 you come out at Tarn Hows, and here I found that I was tiring. The sun was beating down again and whilst you might think a path around a lake is level, it’s not. Penny had been hoping to get up to Tarn Hows to see me and cheer me on, but she was nowhere to be seen. I ate my Graze Bar and drank some more water and having done my lap and a half of the Tarn I set off down the track back towards Coniston – to see Penny just as I turned away from the Tarn.

There was then a fantastic stony downhill, again through trees – but I knew the long-ish flat sunny bit was coming up. I got down the hill as quickly as I could and prepared myself for the slog to the end. I have to admit I walked bits: but as I crossed the finishing line I realised I had completed the run in 2 hours and 22 minutes, which I thought wasn’t a bad time for an off road half marathon. Penny had managed to jog down to the end to see me come over the line, and we both then went swimming in the lake before sitting by the car in the picnic and having a picnic.

I managed to run again the next day, and then met up with Penny again on the Tuesday evening for a bike ride and – I hoped – to swim in the river Eden at Pendragon Castle. This is a castle which I’d long wanted to visit, partly as it’s one of those places whose name just intrigued me. There are myths about it being connected to Uther Pendragon, and there are certainly plenty of ‘Arthur’ place names in this neck of the woods. However the signs on the ruins state that it was built in the 12th and 14th centuries. What the sign misses is that the Castle was also restored by Lady Anne Clifford in the 17th century: after a long court battle she had come into her inheritance (from her father) at the age of 60. She was finally able to restore not only Pendragon Castle but also Appleby, Brougham, Brough and Skipton (where she had been born).

Having parked by the castle, we had cycled down the ‘B’ road which runs more or less parallel to the Carlisle-Settle railway, turning round just as it joins the A684. Coming back seemed far easier and quicker – perhaps because the wind was with us rather than against us – and I imagined Lady Anne cantering along her horse, to reach this lovely spot in the Upper Eden valley. We were lucky that it was a beautiful evening, but all the way down the valley and back I loved the views of the hills (and we saw a train on the way back – though not a steam train).

Unfortunately the river has been fenced off, so we couldn’t see a way of getting down to it to swim. Instead we drove a bit further back along the road, pulled into the side, and stopped by the river for another picnic and to watch the sheep as the sun began to go down. I felt completely and utterly relaxed.

Coniston

After an attempt to get down to Coniston when the temperature was -5 and the handbrake froze on my car, allowing me to go nowhere, a couple of weeks later the appropriate day arrived. The weather had changed with temperatures in the mid-teens and a feeling of early spring, snowdrops, crocuses and even daffodils popping up all around.

Even with such warm temperatures, I had packed hat, buff, gloves, sheepskin boots and down coat ‘just in case’ and was wearing a long sleeved top and a running jacket which had a lightweight fleecy lining (I must get a lightweight fleece that I can wear for running… also some new running leggings as I only have one full-length pair, and my fab. Goretex shoes have developed holes). The weather forecast had said that temperatures were going to drop to feel like 4 degrees, and that there was a chance of rain… Penny’s weather forecast, on the other hand, was completely different. So who knew what we were going to encounter. Unlike me, who is a chilly body, Penny had debated whether to wear shorts, and had a vest top on under her running top and jacket.

We arrived in Coniston village and parked in the Sports and Social club car park – just away from the centre but only £4 for the whole day, and your fee contributes towards the sporting life of the village. From there we walked to the main car park to use the loos – which were in a disgusting state and not worth the 30p we had to pay. I felt sorry for the guy who was on-site ready to clean them, plunger in hand.

As we set off we hadn’t gone far before we felt hot. Jackets came off and were wrapped round our waists as we paused to take photos from the northern end of the lake. We were running around the lake clockwise, so uphill towards Brantwood, the home of John Ruskin, who built a dining room extension on to the previously relatively small house with superb views of the lake. Just before Brantwood we turned up a public footpath/bridleway which took us up into Forestry Commission owned land: the western edges of Grizedale Forest.

Grizedale is possibly my favourite of the forestry commission forests that I know, and as we ran along we were discussing this as it’s Penny’s favourite too. The others are great as well but there is something special about Grizedale. Maybe, for me, it’s because it was the first place I ever did ‘proper’ mountain biking on my first ever visit to the Lake District – when I fell headlong in love with the place – and maybe it’s also because over the years it’s somewhere I’ve frequently returned to with or without the children, exploring more of the forest as time has gone by. One of my favourite short runs (about 4 miles) takes you from the Visitor Centre up to Carron Crag – a run I wrote up for a running magazine several years ago but which still brings vivid picture memories to my head whenever I think about it.

We ran along the wall which bounds Brantwood and then uphill, passing the remains of one of the woodland sculptures – a seat – and then up past Lawson Park where Adam Sutherland’s Grizedale Arts is based. The house has as stunning a position as Brantwood, whilst being even less accessible and private, surrounded by the forest.

Running on uphill (if we had turned downhill at this point we would have ended up back on the road), some forestry operations had been in progress. I always think this makes the landscape look like one of those Paul Nash First World War paintings, although of course it looks like that for completely different reasons: for reasons of good tree management rather than death and destruction.

Turning off the forest road on to a single track path, Penny pointed out the lichen on the trees, demonstrating how clean the air is – unfortunately at this point my camera developed a problem with focussing and from this point on it was a bit hit and miss as to whether my photos were blurry or not, irritatingly. There were dark pools of clear water, and staring up through the denser parts of the forest I always imagine is like Mirk Wood, although again not as threatening.

Coming out on Park Moor (National Trust), we were treated to a magnificent view of Coniston water. Exposed and high up, it looked as if there was rain over to our west (the other side of Coniston Old Man), and Penny was glad that after all she hadn’t worn shorts.

There are unclassified old county roads up here and Penny was saying what a problem the motorbikes and 4x4s can be, as they’re perfectly entitled to use these old roads but don’t always help with their maintenance – as a result of which some have eroded in places to bare rock. As we dropped down the hill having gone past ‘the cottage in the clouds’ (stunning location, but how do you get there?) we met some motorcyclists coming up – or trying to come up – a particularly rocky section of track. As I bounced down the track while they waited, my eyes met those of one of the men – and there was that brief frisson of mutual attraction… and then we were gone and they were left to try to scramble their bikes up over the rocks.

The track comes out in the village of High Nibthwaite and a short jog along the road took us to a footpath which crossed a field to cut off a corner. The river Crake flows out of the lake here – and ultimately into Morecambe Bay – and was high and fast today. In places the field was below water level, as I particularly found out when I took a route which was slightly squishier than I had thought. Goretex trainers are great when they don’t have holes in and when the water level doesn’t go up above the tops of them………

We stopped on the bridge – repaired after floods in 2009 – ate flapjacks and checked whether Strava (me) and Penny’s Garmin thought we’d done the same mileage and time (they did, more or less). A bunch of 4×4 jeeps went past us, presumably heading for the same track that the motorcyclists had been struggling up. I had visions of the 4x4s going up meeting motorcyclists coming down: not a good combination as the unclassified road is not very wide.

There is then about 3.5km of run on the road, with no alternative other than miles up hill on to Blawith Fells. Tracks entice you off road but only lead down to the lakeshore, partly as so much of it is privately owned. We both commented how as drivers when we’re on roads like this we always wonder why on earth people walk or run along them – narrow, with blind bends and blind summits – but sometimes it is of course that there is no reasonable alternative. However at Sunny Bank – where there is a collection of houses alongside the Mere Beck, including at least one which looks like a former mill – several paths join and cross the road, including the Cumbria Way. This now was going to take us all the way back to Coniston.

It hugs the shore and you dodge rocks and tree roots as hard as rocks and wonder in places if it is going to erode from under your feet, winding amongst trees and with views of the lake and its clear waters lapping around the tree roots. It’s beautiful, and not surprisingly on this dry spring day, we met several walkers coming in the other direction and a man seated on the springy turf eating his sandwiches. Nearer to Coniston – you cross land owned by Birmingham University’s sports dept., and think what a fantastic place it would be to study Sports Science if they bring you here – families were playing, a large flock of geese had gathered in a field, and sheep ‘were safely grazing’. At Coniston Hall memories of the Lakeland Half and of the Lakeland Marathon (Penny ran the latter a few years ago in boiling hot weather; we both ran the half a few years earlier in hot weather but at least it was half the distance) came to mind; and from there it is a short, level run along a good quality path back into the centre of Coniston. In some ways it’s the worst part of the run as for both of us it brought back memories of blisteringly hot summer days and running along with the sun beating up from the path: it’s the last mile or so of the half marathon (other than an annoying run around the field before you get to the finish line), and is one of those times when you can see the finish and yet it’s irritatingly and hotly an effort to get there.

Today Penny was determined to run to the very point at which we had started and we ended up back at the car park and a minature model of the Bluebird.

We considered tea in Coniston but to be completely honest I’ve never been much of a fan of the place. I suggested Chesters at Skelwith Bridge, but it was heaving, with nowhere to park, so we went on to Ambleside where we were able to park on the street in a disc zone. Esquires served a delicious Brie, Avocado and Tomato ciabatta and after that and a drink it was time to get our by now stiffening-up legs home. We have now run around the 3rd biggest lake in the lake district – although ironically Bassenthwaite was further, due purely to where the footpaths go. Just Ullswater and Windermere still to do – and then Esthwaite Water and Brothers Water to finish off as a celebratory run, followed by prosecco somewhere.