(Cumbria Way. 13th March 2014 – 15½ miles)
I pulled back my curtains, rubbed a hand over a sleep-creased face and swore. My luck with glorious, sunny mornings had fled. A thick mist had poured into the valley and reduced visibility to a few yards. I could barely see the hotel car-park beneath me, let alone the far side of the valley. I yawned, fought the instinct to climb back into bed and resigned myself to a day of low cloud, mist and possible rain. What a shame – I knew that today was the most scenic on the Cumbria Way.
I showered, dressed and hurried downstairs to scratch and whine impatiently at the dining room door. When it finally opened at 8.30, I ran in, wolfed a very decent breakfast and was stomping up a rocky path behind the hotel by ten past nine.
Though my back was still painful, I won’t continue to whinge on and on about it. You don’t want that. Painkillers and constant flexing were making it more bearable but I would be in some pain and discomfort all the way to Berwick if on a sliding, diminishing scale.
I’ve walked up Mickleden many times but familiarity hasn’t lessened my love for this valley. Stabbing deep into the heart of the fells from The Old Dungeon Ghyll, it tugs you on an enticing choice of superb walks and impressive mountains. It is full of exciting promise and today was no different.
Sadly, I can’t show you on this occasion how dramatic, how lovely Mickleden is. As I began the climb up Stake Pass at its far end, a glimmer of sun penetrated the mist. But only a glimmer.
Stake Pass is the second highest point on the Cumbria Way. The highest – High Pike on Day 4 – can be sidestepped but not so this steep pass. After scaling the far higher Old Man of Coniston the day before, this seemed like a piece of cake, especially in cool mist: a piece of cake smothered with icing and a cherry. For, when I reached the 1000ft top, my sweaty head popped through the cloud
into blinding, bewildering sunshine.
I’ve only climbed above cloud on a handful of occasions and it is always a stop-dead, jaw-dropping, try-to-remember-to-breathe moment.
There was no-one about, no-one to share the cloud inversion with, no-one to slap on the back, no one to stare wide-eyed at. There was just me, an almost silent world and, I might say, an awesome scene. And I knew that even if the rest of the walk all the way to Berwick-upon-Tweed was a disappointment, or I had to go home early for whatever reason, this moment alone made the whole trek worthwhile. Some moments in life, a few, are like that.
It was long minutes before I could tear myself away and turn my back on that vast, froth-filled basin.
After the pass, the Way crosses Langdale Combe and a series of glacial drumlins or deposits created when the valley head and surrounding mountains sat under thick ice and glaciers. They looked like the burial mounds of a long-lost army.
Beyond this wide, boggy bowl the path winds on towards the Langstrath valley.
It’s quite a slow approach but worth the wait.
From the top of the pass, Langstrath is revealed as one of the most dramatic Lakeland valleys. Uninhabited and with no roads, it is wild, unspoilt and magnificent. And today it was empty too.
I descended a series of steep, giddy hairpin bends,
with Stake Beck tumbling noisily close by. The sound of splashing, running water was a welcome companion on much of the Cumbria Way. Often on previous visits, many pools and streams had been frozen solid.
When I first walked down Langstrath several years ago, I marvelled at the huge, pollarded ash trees: ancient, dozing ents dotting the valley floor and sides. Ash poles were a valuable resource and ash leaves a traditional fodder where grazing was poor. I was pleased to see that someone had recently pollarded this tree – you can see the new, whippy growth and discarded cut branches.
I had always thought it a shame that when these gnarled, contorted beauties finally topple over, there would be none to replace them. But it seems that someone is pollarding the ash trees of Langstrath again. I wondered who.
At midday and far behind me, I saw my first walker of the day (just off-centre above). In that wide landscape and all the way from the hotel, there had been no-one. Not a soul. Despite its huge popularity, I’m often surprisingly alone in the heart of the Lake District.
Frogs aren’t too bright are they? I can’t tell you how much frog-spawn I saw in small puddles and trills on high mountain paths. Well, I can – a lot. Its chances of hatching and the tadpoles surviving before these tiny pools dry up must be minimal. I thought of transferring any spawn I came across to larger pools and ditches … but realised that way, madness lies.
After about an hour’s walk along the valley, Langstrath Beck flows out into Borrowdale;
and for a few hundred yards I joined Wainwright’s Coast to Coast path. As I turned north toward Rosthwaite, I stopped and looked over my shoulder at Eagle Crag. Last year, I had climbed up the valley to its left, whilst walking the C2C. There had been snow and ice and at the top, I had staggered into a white-out. It was a memory difficult to reconcile with today’s warm, spring sunshine.
This is how it looked on that day almost exactly a year earlier. Some difference.
I found a boulder to perch on and happily inspected my packed lunch (from the Old Dungeon Ghyll). Sandwiches on my walks often end up squashed in my rucksack but I didn’t mind too much – so long as no-one was watching me eating the resultant mess. And I even had a floor show laid on for me. I chewed and watched intently as a furious farmer scolded some trespassing walkers. I nodded judiciously and sagely at the angry farmer and shook my head disparagingly at the transgressors. I’m all for open access but not at the expense of clambering over vulnerable dry-stone walls and into fields with lambing ewes.
With my moment of high Cumbrian drama over, I wiped my chin and passed quickly through Rosthwaite. I didn’t even stop at the Riverside Bar for a pint (true) but marched on soberly toward the lake.
Beyond (the no longer) New Bridge
I entered light woodland to follow the banks of the River Derwent.
Unlike my morning’s travails, this path on the approach to Derwent Water was busy with car-borne walkers and mountain-bikers. I no longer had the path to myself and resented – a little – having to share it. Selfish of me I know.
The afternoon grew hazier as I pulled out from the jaws of Borrowdale
and at 3 o’clock I reached the banks of the lake.
I still had at least another four miles to go but almost all of it was easy going along the banks of this long, beautiful lake. It was hardly strenuous walking.
On the horizon at the head of the lake, I could just make out Skiddaw if not Keswick at his feet.
I passed a small gaggle of photographers drawn by a posing cormorant.
He worked the cameras like an old, bored pro.
A little further on, I liked the perfect symmetry of this jetty’s reflection with Keswick emerging from the mist.
I was fairly tired now and grew a little irritated by crowds of afternoon strollers walking very slowly, three or four abreast, deep in conversation and blocking my way. Selfish of me again I know.
At a little before five, I reached Keswick and booked into the Swiss Court Guest House. After a quick shower, I was out pounding the streets, recoiling at the sheer number of people and picking up a few bits for the walk to Carlisle. Only then did I celebrate my arrival in this heaving metropolis at The Dog and Gun – probably my favourite Keswick pub. Try their goulash, it is delicious, fantastic value and just what I needed after a 15-mile walk. A couple of pints weren’t bad either.