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.

The Cumbria Way in pieces (part four)

I’d had a week or so of feeling quite tired and low, and hadn’t got outside much. After the run along Hadrian’s Wall the weather had reverted to being a bit wet and miserable, and my mood matched it. I was also out quite a lot for work, which is enjoyable but does limit how much time I get for exercise – especially as the evenings are still dark and I don’t find it easy to motivate myself to run alone in the dark.

Anne told me it’s because we were in Pisces and that my mood would change after 21st March: which also happened to be Alex’s 18th birthday. Yes, my oldest child is now officially an adult. I cooked him and 6 of his friends a 4-course meal in celebration. They must have enjoyed it as he said he’d like to do it again, perhaps in the summer. Just for the record, the menu was:

Blini with a mix of smoked salmon, cream cheese, smoked trout mousse, trout caviar

– served with champagne

Roast beef with roasted root veg., roast potatoes, green veg., yorkshire puddings and gravy

– served with red wine

Berry Pavlova

– served with dessert wine

A selection of cheese and biscuits

– served with port

There was also a chocolate birthday cake, which didn’t get eaten on the day but taken into school the following day.

The weather turned warmer and sunnier and Penny and I decided it was time to do the next stage of the Cumbria Way: she suggested Langdale to Keswick. We again needed to leave one car at one end and one at the other, and the best bet looked like leaving one near the A66 just outside Portinscale and Keswick, and the other at Langdale. Having found a space for the first, what we hadn’t anticipated was that Langdale was heaving: however we were lucky and someone left the third car park, next to the Old Dungeon Ghyll hotel, we tried just as we were circling it for a second time.

There’s a nice clear sign indicating that you’re on the right path at the start. I have to say that after this however, waymarking was sadly lacking. Every time I run part of the Cumbria Way I think of David (my ex) doing the entire thing a few years ago, some of it in the dark. It’s just as well he’s good at navigating.

The route wends its way along the Mickleden valley, the river bubbling away next to you, before you get to a junction. The righthand (western) leads up past one of the Angle Tarns (one I haven’t been to) before heading along/over Esk Pike and ultimately, if you want, to Scafell. The path we were taking was one which goes up the side of Stake Gill (ghyll?) and over Stake Pass towards Keswick. Once you’re at the top, High Raise is on your right and Glaramara on your left (if you’re going north). There are absolutely no roads up here, and you get a real sense of remoteness even though we saw quite a few walkers out and about.

A zigzag path leads down from Stake Pass: I loved running down this, but people with vertigo might not be quite so keen. And, of course, if you want to admire the view it’s better not to go too fast – get to the bottom too quickly and you miss out on the enjoyment. You can just see me in the photo (below) which Penny took.

Something I hadn’t appreciated – and didn’t get a photo of – is that once we were in the Langastrath valley at the bottom, we ran past Black Moss Pot, one of THE places to have a dip in terms of wild swimming in the Lake District. We saw plenty of places where we said ‘it would be nice to have a dip in there’, but didn’t take any photos of them. Am I becoming a little complacent about being able so easily to access these stunning locations?! I’m certainly not bored by them – I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve thought or said ‘we’re so lucky to live here’ – but I do end up with 100s of rather similar-looking photographs. The wonderful landscape makes me all the more determined to stay fit and active as I get older, however: Penny and I had both had stressful weeks, and being out in this luscious scenery and running and feeling alive was the perfect antidote.

The path isn’t that easy to run as it’s quite rocky and uneven (we did wonder if the other side of the gill would have been easier) but it eventually comes out where the Langastrath Beck – the one we’d been following – joins either (according to the map) Greenup Gill or Willygrass Gill. I did take some photos here as the water bounds over the rocks. It’s obviously a bit of a tourist destination: only a short-ish walk from Stonethwaite or Rosthwaite and therefore fairly accessible from Keswick.

At Rosthwaite we found some public toilets, which is always useful, and ran past a barn serving tea and cake. It was tempting to stop but we’d already taken far longer than we expected and still weren’t at the bottom of Derwentwater.

We’d previously run a loop round this area from Grange and back, passing Castle Crags. The Cumbria Way uses a slightly more easterly route, which means not needing to go quite so far uphill again. There’s a short section on road in and just after Grange, before the path drops down towards the lake. This southern end of the lake is clearly quite marshy but also quite well-trodden, as it’s criss-crossed with boardwalks. It brought back memories of our ‘miles for Matt’ when we had run around Derwentwater as one of the 16 lakes for Penny’s 50th birthday: not long after the floods of 2015, as some bridges had needed rebuilding, including a footbridge over the Derwent where it flows into the lake at this end.

We didn’t need to cross that bridge today as we were already on the western side of the lake, and we were soon running along grassy paths, the lake gleaming on our right. It was getting late however, and we still had a few miles to go.

With tired legs we finally came out in Portinscale and walked round to Harry’s coffee stand. We had covered 25km (15.5 miles). It was good to get a drink and something to eat before getting in Penny’s car and driving back down to Langdale to fetch mine.

It was one of those days when it would have been lovely to have stayed out and relaxed into the evening: but Penny needed to get home to help Tim with their campervan and motorbikes, and I needed to get back to Keswick to take Alex to a friend’s party, to fetch Bella and to get home in time for a Sainsbury’s delivery. I made the Sainsbury’s delivery but Penny was late for Tim and I was about 10 minutes late dropping Alex off.

It had taken longer than we’d expected and we’d had all the extra miles to drive because of doing a linear route, but in terms of ‘headspace’ it was well worth it: as I said to Penny, if we hadn’t got out then we’d still have felt stressed from our working weeks. As I write this I’m at the Sage in Newcastle-Gateshead: it’s great to hear music and to be in a city (I had a lovely wander around the Quayside market earlier), but to really sort your head out nothing beats being out in stunning countryside in beautiful weather. I think next time we’ll aim for a shorter stage though!

More hills and water: Stickle Tarn and Hawkshead trail race

I’ve wanted to swim in Stickle Tarn ever since I was up there one November on a walk leaders’ assessment. When Anne and I were compiling the list of lakes and tarns to swim in, firstly as she was turning 60 and then because I was, I felt it had to go on the list.

It was a beautiful warm sunny summer afternoon when a handful of us drove to Stickle Ghyll car park (National Trust) which I had anticipated, being large, would have plenty of room. There weren’t a lot of spaces but we only needed two and sure enough I had just pulled in when Hannah and her family also drove up and found a space nearby.

What I hadn’t properly remembered was how steep the path becomes – partly because in fact when we did our walk leaders’ assessment we had turned off the path about halfway up and the steepest part is at the top. It’s also quite rocky so a bit of clambering is needed; slightly easier today as the ghyll had almost dried up, so at least the rocks weren’t slippery.

In some ways it was a bit of repeat of going up to Sprinkling Tarn with Jo and Mike. I seem to be able to forget the most strenuous bits of walks – perhaps because swimming in the tarns at the top is so exhilarating. It was again a warm, close, day and as we got higher and the walk got tougher Hannah’s asthma got the better of her and even Laura had to sit down for a rest. Penny’s bad back was OK… on the way up…

It was worth it however for the stunning views, even if a pity that the usually attractive ghyll was a series of trickles and puddles rather than a splashing torrent with rock pools. The tarn water level didn’t in fact seem too low, and it was as beautiful as I remembered, surrounded by the various Langdale peaks: in particular Pavey Ark and Harrison Stickle. We stripped down to swimsuits and got in, glad of the coolness of the water after the warmth of the sun.

Walking down in some ways was trickier than walking up – it’s always harder on your knees and your quad muscles when there are big steps down. Penny’s back was suffering before long, and I took her bag for her as it was hurting her back. We got to the bottom in, of course, far less time than it took to walk up, and went to the pub for a drink before getting back in the car to go home.

The weather changed not long after this: in some ways it was a relief as we definitely needed some water for the streams and lakes (Thirlmere has been looking ridiculously low – I’m not sure whether people in Manchester are having their water rationed at the moment), and with cooler weather it was easier to run. It did of course become more slippery underfoot – I managed to fall over in front of a guy who was walking his dog in Gelt Woods, and realised about a week later that I had a brightly multi-coloured bruise on my right thigh as well as grazes on my right calf and right shoulder.

I then had a week with no running and no yoga as I went down to Somerset with the children, to see my parents. Not surprisingly my Dad’s alzheimers doesn’t get any better and, I felt, was noticeably worse. However it was good to see them and also to see my sister and her boyfriend. Bella and Edward loved Bristol Zoo and I think they enjoyed the Roman Baths, but there was the usual bickering and plenty of disagreements over where to go. We then had a gruesome journey back up the M5 and M6 – possibly the slowest and worst drive I’ve ever had.

By the Saturday morning I’d had a good night’s sleep in my own bed however, and drove down to Hawkshead to do the Lakeland Trails Hawkshead 16km trail challenge. It wasn’t raining when I left home, and optimistically I had not taken a waterproof jacket nor a change of clothes. The heavens opened as I past Penrith and other than a couple of short respites stayed that way for the rest of the day.

Because of the weather there weren’t as many people milling around at the start/finish ground as there might have been, and although I had opted for the ‘mass start’, there were only about 45 of us – a lot of people must have still chosen to do the staggered starts. As I started across the line a few people overtook me, but I was pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t as many as I’d feared.

The first hill was already slippery and muddy, and runners from earlier races were coming down in the opposite direction. It’s a fairly rocky path uphill after the initial on-road start before you turn to go across an area of open land, and past Moss Eccles tarn (and some smaller ones) – another one I want to swim in some time. I kept thinking of how last time I’d done more or less this route, with Penny, it had been just as rainy and wet as it was today.

Photo courtesy of James Kirby/Lakeland Trails – hair courtesy of RainyDays

We came down to one of the Sawreys – I can never remember whether it’s near or far – and after a brief spell on the road turned off uphill again. Just as I went round the corner something flew out of the hedge and bit me on my left thigh (I think it was attracted to the orange go-faster stripe on my leggings). It hurt, and as I ran I could feel it throbbing. I briefly thought of going back to the medic truck which I had just passed, but decided I’d live until I got to the paramedic at the end of the race.

A windy rocky path led down to the shores of Windermere, before going along the shore on the firmer track which runs through the woods, from about Claife Heights to Wray. Then you turn to run up the Coffin Trail: a mile long climb which starts by going up stone steps before turning back into a rocky path. It’s the third main ascent of the 16km route, but once you reach the top it’s downhill all the way to the finish.

I had anticipated that so long as I was careful I would be able to overtake people on the downhill sections, and that indeed turned out to be the case – although the really fast runners overtook me. At one point I’d just overtaken a couple of people and felt a slight slip under my feet, when I heard someone behind me fall over: a couple of times I had slightly slipped but fortunately not fallen.

I completed the race in just under 2 hours, which I think is the fastest I’ve ever done it – I would have liked to have run more of the uphill sections, so that’s something I need to work on. But having not run all week I was just trying to enjoy it – despite the horsefly bite.

Which was what it turned out to be, and a couple of days later it was red, sore and blistering. A visit to the Doctors and some antihistamine and fingers crossed it will all be fine. The next race is Keswick at the beginning of September, followed a couple of weeks after by Cartmel.