(12th March 2014 – 14 miles. This section was off the Cumbria Way)
I could barely stand without groaning. My back was angry at lugging a rucksack for 15 miles and was screaming disapproval. Getting out of bed was painfully comical and I clenched my teeth as I dressed and pulled on socks … with more melodramatic groaning.
It was another beautiful day – which was all very jolly but unhelpful in making a route choice. My plan was to leave the official route today, climb a mountain and make my own, high-level way to Great Langdale. Bad weather at least would have dictated that I abandon that idea and stick to the 11 mile, easy and low walk along the Cumbria Way. But sun and blue skies were pulling me on the mountain diversion I had long-planned. Before breakfast, I shuffled into Coniston hoping that movement would loosen me up, painkillers kick in and I would finally make a decision.
Ibuprofen and walking did loosen me up a little and I hobbled back to the B&B to pack and polish off a cooked breakfast. But as I messily shovelled down food and chatted to the owner, I still hadn’t made up my mind. A short, very pretty walk which I had done before or a new, mountainous challenge? Pamper my back; or teach it who was boss? I even considered a third option: give my back a total rest and catch the bus. It was only as I hauled on boots, gaiters and rucksack that habitual stubbornness made up my mind for me. I would climb the Old Man of Coniston – goddamnit – and tackle the most difficult day of my 220-mile trek.
After picking up some supplies in the village, I started the steep road walk to the Old Man. I got lost (which let’s face it, is hardly news) and saw parts of Coniston which were perfectly charming … if not on my itinerary.
By 10am I was at the Fell Gate car park from where my ascent of that peak would start. The Old Man of Coniston (or Coniston Old Man if you prefer) is a very popular mountain and on a fine, March morning it was fairly busy.
There were scantily-clad fell-runners, vividly-clad hikers and oddly-clad dog-walkers all traipsing to the 2634 ft summit. The path started out gently enough but very soon I was grimacing, sweating, muttering and puffing slowly, slowly upward.
The Old Man has been slate-quarried for centuries and it seemed sad that little effort has been made to heal his scars. I’m not saying that all evidence of mining should be expunged; far from it – just that he might have been left in a more sympathetic state.
Having said that, some of the detritus is quite beautiful – in an Antony Gormley kind of way.
I panted up to Low Water – which didn’t seem low to me at all – sank agedly onto a rock, wiped the sweat pouring down my face and glugged water.
But it was only a brief respite; from the tarn the path leaps up to the summit in one long bound.
See? (The summit is out of shot, top-right).
Much of the ascent was in shade but where the path emerged into sunlight, the climb was a long, hot, slow stumble.
As you can imagine, I could only manage a few minutes at a time before stopping, swearing under my breath, easing my still painful back and sucking in huge lungfuls of cool air.
The weather was remarkably kind but the higher I got, the hazier it became and visibility wasn’t great. But given such a perfect day, I could hardly complain. (Well, a bit).
Just below the summit, I crossed my only snow of the fortnight
and then blessed, sweet, hallelujah moment, I was there.
And here’s proof that I did indeed reach the top (though this might be Photoshop-ed, I suppose).
I looked out over yesterday’s shoreline walk along Coniston Water and, in the far distance, Morecambe Bay.
Having taught the Old Man that I wasn’t to be trifled with, I tramped off – grinning – on a fine ridge walk northwards.
I was grateful that this year I didn’t need cairns to guide me through swirling snow-fall.
The ridge wasn’t as level as I might have wished; it dipped quite sharply and gave me another stiff climb up to Swirl How at 2631ft – only 3ft shorter than the Old Man.
As I passed above Levers Water, I got my final glimpse of Coniston … until next time.
I was approaching the Lakeland Big Boys now: ahead and to my left, the Scafell range floated in the haze
whilst directly ahead stood Crinkle Crags and, furthest away, aloof Bowfell.
That small lake is Red Tarn and marked my route down and over to Langdale. At a quarter past one, it still seemed an awfully long way off.
This was a marvellous, exhilarating walk and I was very glad I had chosen it over the pedestrian Cumbria Way alternative. (There is nothing wrong with the latter – it’s a perfectly nice walk – but it can’t compete with this mountain ridge walk).
As I approached Wrynose Pass my heart sank.
I knew from studying the map that there was a deep valley between me and Red Tarn but even so, it was deeper and steeper than I had hoped. The path down to the road was fairly indistinct and soon I lost it completely. I slipped and slid down grassy slopes to reach the huddle of cars below.
And immediately began to climb once more. After my earlier exertions, this was gruelling.
Finally, at about 3 o’clock, I reached the tarn. I was pretty exhausted but very happy that I had finished the last climb of the day.
I sat for a while, high amongst mountains I know well and gulped the last of my water. (This might seem a restful scene but actually, I had to run into shot just before the self-timer clicked).
Friends of mine often complain that they find descents more difficult than climbs. I don’t generally agree but I did on this path down to Langdale via Oxendale. The newly laid stones were small, rounded and tricky to walk on. My back still hurt and my hips (which support the weight of my rucksack) were bruised and sore. My knees didn’t much like it either.
A curve in the path revealed the unmistakable Langdale Pikes
with sunlight streaming over Crinkle Crags
down into the valley below.
Here in Great Langdale, below the Pikes, I rejoined the Cumbria Way.
I had booked into The Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel, where I’ve stayed several times and like very much. Owned by the National Trust, the hotel has a charming old worldliness: the rooms are comfortable and surprisingly affordable, especially low season. You couldn’t wish for a more majestic setting. And if breakfast time is a little late for early starters like me, the Full English is excellent.
Next door, and part of the hotel, is the Hikers Bar which I’ve supped in for over thirty years (not continuously). Always busy, with excellent ale, stone flagged floor, ancient (if inefficient) range and photos of mountaineering endeavours, it is world-famous and well-loved. But I think its laurels are shabby and in need of burnishing: the food can be disappointing and, on occasion, terrible; the seating is inadequate and uncomfortable; it is freezing in winter; the lighting is horrible and, in contrast to the hotel, the bar-staff are sometimes unwelcoming and even rude. I ate a curiously bland Cumbrian sausage, gravy and mash in the cold bar. (But even so, it was better than the last meal I ate there). As soon as I had finished, and with nothing to detain me, I fled to the comfort of my room. I wonder how long I shall be able to ignore my current dislike for the Hikers Bar?
It wouldn’t take much to make it a great pub again. A large wood burner to supplement the range; softer lighting; reliably good, hearty food and a re-think of the seating would all make for a better experience. And friendly, attentive staff might be an idea too. I might even learn to love the Hikers Bar as much as I did on my first visit in 1983. (Rant over).