(Cumbria Way. 11th March 2014 – 14½ miles + 1 unintentional mile)
I like Ulverston. It’s a small, attractive market-town with interesting shops and a friendly atmosphere. But it is a fairly quiet and otherwise unremarkable place and I don’t suppose I would ever have visited if the Cumbria Way didn’t start/finish there.
It does though have a greater claim to fame: of all the unlikely places, Ulverston is the birthplace of Stan Laurel.
I had trouble sleeping on my first night away from home and at half four in the morning, I was wide awake and staring at the ceiling. I had hurt my back a few days previously (digging up peonies, since you ask) and I worried whether I could complete a walk to Coniston – let alone right across England to Berwick.
Unable to sleep, I read for a couple of hours (‘The Godfather‘ since you ask again) and then, before breakfast, I slipped out of ‘Virginia House’ (my B&B of choice in Ulverston … though it has changed hands since I last stayed), walked around the town and stopped in front of Graham Ibbeson’s charming statue of Stan and Ollie.
I doubt Laurel and Hardy films are widely watched any more but as a child, I was a big fan (still am) and I stood remembering scenes and lines, smiling and humming the “Dance of the Cuckoos” theme to myself. I got a few odd looks but that’s OK.
After a stout breakfast, I was shod, backpacked and at the path’s start by 8am. 220 miles to Berwick-upon-Tweed seemed a very long haul indeed but I wasn’t particularly worried about the distance. One step at a time and all that. I was more concerned that back-pain would send me home early. That, and that this red squirrel would be the only one I’d see. (It wasn’t).
Unlike the start of some long-distance footpaths, the ‘Cumbria Way’ doesn’t dither through parks or industrial estates, past sewage farms or schools. No. The CW is off like a whippet. From the centre of Ulverston, I followed a quiet, stream-side cul-de-sac
and within a few minutes I was crossing achingly green fields, dry-stone walls and a farmyard. It’s a good beginning.
After Old Hall Farm, the path climbs and I was grumbling a bit (in a Corleone accent) as I paused often to catch my breath, readjust my rucksack and gaze back.
I would see hundreds, possibly thousands, of new-born lambs over the coming fortnight but this was the only one who was plucky enough to run up and see what I was all about. He was very vocal in his opinion, whatever it might have been.
A little further on and I got my first proper view of the Lakeland Fells. The Old Man was ahead and would be visible for much of the day: back-pain and fair weather allowing, I planned to leave the ‘true’ route of the CW and climb him the following day.
I turned around for a final, dazzling look at the Bay, dug out my sunglasses,
against that almost-too-vivid-green and ambled on.
Unlike the Coast to Coast, way-marking on the Cumbria Way is generally excellent. And where official signs are lacking there are often rather lovely, home-made ones.
After my last two annual walks (in snow and ice), I couldn’t believe my luck. Was I dreaming? Was this weather for real?
(You’ll see a lot of photos of sheep on this walk, I’m afraid).
I remembered this first day of the CW very clearly. Although six years before, I had walked in early January, the sun had shone then too and St John’s Church near Broughton Beck matched my memory perfectly. But it was a shame that the church wasn’t framed somehow to make a better photo. A pair of ash trees perhaps; maybe with one at a drunken angle. That would work.
Sometimes, someone smiles down on me.
This beermat stuck into a wall had me repeatedly whirling around looking for a pub (but sadly there are none until Coniston).
With my back aching, I stopped often to soak up the sun and top up with painkillers.
The first day of a long walk is liberating.
There is no rushing to get to work; no washing up; no hoovering nor any of the tedious chores of everyday life.
Rather, just a steady plod-plod: regularly checking the guidebook; humming; thinking of beer and food; an immersion in a slowly changing landscape and thinking of food and beer.
I walked along with my heavy Nikon swinging on my neck, pausing often to change lenses or filters and snapping away merrily.
At one point (busily humming), I missed a turning and walked half a mile before realising my mistake and retracing my steps – adding a further mile to my total.
Ulverston to Coniston is only 14½ miles and yet both times I’ve walked it, this day has seemed longer.
I’m not sure why I find Day 1 so tough. On paper, it isn’t a particularly hard day and yet it feels more like a 20 miler. As a first day, it isn’t an easy introduction … or so I find.
But it is a great walk with many glorious sections – like this stretch of springy turf just before Cockenskell with views down into the Crake Valley.
The first lake of the ‘Way is Beacon Tarn – a natural lunch break. I flopped in the shade of some conifers, removed my boots and socks, air-dried my feet (with due apologies to the couple just downwind of me) and ate a sandwich. And then another one.
I’d only covered 9 miles (+ 1) but I was tired. I’d had six hours sleep, the path up to the tarn is steep, my pack heavy and the sun hot.
There was still a long way to go before Coniston. From the tarn, I skirted the Blawith Fells and then crossed Stable Harvey Moss – always with the Old Man peering down at me.
I was amongst Herdwick sheep now. They are a marker for me; a marker that I am in the Lake District. (I won’t mention that there is a small flock of Herdwicks, not two miles from where I work in Sussex).
At about 2.30, I crossed clear Torver Beck, then a road and
finally descended to the shore of Coniston Water.
This is a popular lakeside walk and I met dog-walkers and afternoon strollers from Coniston. Saying hello and smiling politely became just a tad repetitive.
The path follows the lake shore through broad-leaf
and mature conifer woodland.
I still stopped often. I was in no particular hurry and my back was painful. But I didn’t cry.
When I reached Coniston Hall, with its fabulous stepped chimneys,
I knew I was almost finished.
At about 4 o’clock, I approached Coniston and, with the scent of beer in my nostrils, increased my pace. I sat outside ‘The Black Bull’ and savoured a pint of Bluebird bitter (for its pain-numbing properties only) before walking out of the village again. A few hundred yards away at Waterhead was my stop for the night – the excellent Bluebird Lodge. I gently eased my back on the bed, supped a mug of Earl Grey and wolfed a plate of biscuits.
And actually, those alone were worth a 15½ mile walk.