After a week of scorching July sunshine, I hoped for something a little cooler to wild camp the Cumbria Way. Working with facial skin grafts in the blazing sun is always a challenge…
I had planned the trip with my friend Jack Aiden Davies, and together we fought through the packed train system from Derby to Ulverston, armed with a weeks camping kit. This included the usual of tent, mat, bag and a bottle of whisky. There are some things you just can’t travel without…
Besides the enjoyment of camping in the outdoors, the trip also served me in a twin ambassadorial role. I’ve been a Brand Ambassador for Terra Nova Equipment for a number of years, and they supported the trip by providing a tent, sleeping bags, walking poles and clothing. The best way to prove outdoor equipment is to work it hard in tough conditions, and constantly review its performance. You don’t have to ask me twice to test equipment to the limit, and I hoped to give it all a thorough going over.
My other ambassadorial role is with the Mountain Heritage Trust. I had met trustee Terry Tasker only a few days before we departed, where my role had been confirmed. I had first heard about the trust through there Kendal Mountain Festival, and chairman Jeff Ford lived on our route. Dropping in seemed too good an opportunity to miss.
The trip began wet, soaking wet. We arrived in Ulverston as rain poured down in buckets, but that didn’t stop us setting off late into the evening to wild camp in a quiet woodland. As a Leave No Trace Trainer, I believe in responsible camping, wherever you are. Some think wild camping irresponsible and hard on the countryside, but I believe if done properly, it can bring a wonderful remote experience to these overcrowded isles. The night was damp, but we were well prepared and enjoyed a peaceful night surrounded by a surprising amount of Hares..!
The next morning we slid out into open fields. The gentle landscape gave way to low and then high fells as we approached Coniston. Only a few squally showers had dogged us as we covered quick miles to the water’s edge. We hardly saw a soul, except around Beacon Tarn, where many gathered to paddle in the clear waters and relax.
It’s a long drag past the lake, but we entered Coniston during the late afternoon. I had heard rumours of people policing the fells and throwing wild campers off, so it was with some trepidation that after a good meal, we left the village. Everything has its measure however. If 20 people make noise and cause damage to the countryside, then they deserve everything they get. I’ve seen awful damage after every solstice around Stanton Moor in my native Derbyshire, and I abhor it. Surely minimal impact camping offends no one..? We quietly pitched our tent a couple of miles out of the village and enjoyed a beautifully peaceful night in the hills.
More rain fell (are you getting the message here..?), but then the sun finally did shine. As we entered Elterwater, our waterproof kit was thrown off as we were beginning to melt. Bracken and rough fell was soon replaced with green fields and open country.
Langdale is legendary in Lake District culture. It’s the home of an early flint site at Pike of Stickle, gunpowder factory, the Langdale Pikes and their horseshoe, and so much more. I had spoken in the valley at Kendal On The Edge in 2014. Memories of camper vans, good friends and long nights came racing back. The sunshine, which had felt so beautiful earlier was suddenly replaced by sharp showers, but little could dampen our spirits. The skies cleared as evening fell and we pitched our solitary tent at the head of the Stake Path. The sunset over Bowfell was beautiful.
The night was cool, but the dawn light brought a day, guaranteed to burn any unprotected skin. The skies were clear and the sun grew in power as we descended towards Borrowdale. We met the first of many DofE Award groups that morning, all heading over to Coniston. They had broad smiles on their faces and were enjoying the sun. I always have to cream or cover up in such conditions, particularly due to my facial skin grafts, and found the suns rays quite burning. I found what shade I could as we rounded Rothswaite and the western shore of Derwentwater, but I did feel part baked by the time we entered Keswick, late on the Thursday afternoon. Here was our only re-supply point before Carlile, after a swift shop and a well needed pub stop, we headed out in the pleasant evening air. The long ascent towards Lantrigg seemed a drag after the sapping heat of the day, but the campsite we found was idyllic. We were beside a babbling back on a small grass bank with long views down the valley.
We headed out on our last day in the fells under cloudy and damp skies. The track to Skiddaw House was simple and surfaced and we rounded the corner towards this beautiful outpost of civilisation by mid morning. I had sheltered here over 20 years ago in an outbuilding as driving rain drenched me to the core. The outbuilding has been upgraded, as has much of the building, but it still has a lovely old charm and ruggedness to it. It must be one of England’s most remote places to stay.
We descended the long stone track and joined the lowlands once more. There was little fell left in the trip as the contours fell away towards Carlisle. That didn’t mean the last leg of the trip didn’t hold any surprises…
I was recently invited to become an Ambassador for the Mountain Heritage Trust (MHT). The chairman, Jeff Ford lives literally a few yards from the trail, so a meeting seemed obligatory. Jeff and his wife Fiona were delightful hosts, allowing us to camp in their garden (not quite wild I know, but it wasn’t a formal campsite..!)
Putting names to face is always important, and though we had spoken many times, we had never met. At last we could discuss the mountains, their beauty, our experiences and the work of the MHT. Jeff kindly showed me his extensive book and ice axe collection, of which many are signed items. What a wonderful evening we all had and our thanks go to the Fords for their hospitality.
Jack and I always knew that our final day would be hard work. 20 miles with full kit, tired limbs and long sections of road work. Actually the day began well as the rivers and fields passed swiftly, but the last few miles into Carlisle were awful. A long Tarmac cycle track followed the railway into industrial and then urban Carlisle. It was hardly stimulating and hard on our feet. We had stopped briefly for a drink in Dalston, and I think the way should stop here. The last few miles did little for the Cumbria way except to detract from the beauty of all its previous miles.
Upon my return I was asked why I had walked the Cumbria Way. My reasons were purely personal. Before losing my toes to frostbite, I regularly walked over 20 miles a day, sometimes up to 40. I had walked the Coast to Coast in 11 days and was regularly out on the hills. Though I expedition across the world, I don’t usually cover huge distances, and need long periods of rest. I wanted a challenge, and a test for my feet. They suffered, they ached, but they survived. I couldn’t do this every week, and I might not carry all my kit again, but I know it can be done.
My thanks to Jack for his companionship, to Terra Nova Equipment for the gear (reviews on their way) and to the Mountain Heritage Trust (Jeff and Fiona) for their hospitality
PS – As for the whisky, well there’s half a bottle left if anyones free…
I whole heartedly agree with you about the last stretch of the Cumbria Way. It is an disappointing end to a splendid walk.
The long tarmac cycle track does nothing for your feet with a full pack on..! When did you walk it..?