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A Cumbria Way Adventure

Last month I did a bit of an unusual thing. I took my running shoes off for four entire days, swapping them for my walking boots – in order to walk almost the entire length of my county along the Cumbria Way from Carlisle to Ulverston.


Some months previously, I had casually mentioned to a friend that I was considering trying a running trip along the Way – the chance to explore the whole county in one go appealed to me, as well as the fact that one end of the Way (Ulverston, where most people begin their journey) is the first place I ever lived. Friend (who is a very experienced long-distance walker) mentioned that in fact the Cumbria Way was on his to do list for this year – and quickly a plan was born.


To some people, the Cumbria Way is not a very engaging route. Covering around 73 miles in total (although our total walked distance was closer to 80 miles), it is only really the middle 40 or so miles that pass through what most people would consider ‘Cumbria’, if when you think of the county it is the Lake District that you have in mind. For us, the chance to walk the very different landscapes at the beginning and end of the route, outside the National Park, was part of the charm. Even in the middle ‘exciting’ section, the Way is designed to be relatively accessible – it only touches one Wainwright top (High Pike, near Caldbeck), and the entire route ascends less than 3000m - which sounds a lot, but is relatively gentle when spread over 80 miles, and much less than you’d expect in such mountainous country. Much of this central section uses some of the best-loved (and easiest) paths of the Central Lakes, as well as popular towns and valleys, and this was also appealing – the chance to join up these familiar, cosy places using just the power of our legs.


Our first job was to plan our route. With Friend being an experienced walker, and me having very recently been in training for a 50 mile ultra race, we felt confident to shorten the normal schedule. Most people walk the Way over five days, which breaks down into long but manageable days, and has the added bonus of having accommodation at all the natural end-of-day points. We decided to go for a four day trip, which entailed a bit of creativity in terms of lengths of day and stopping points. Our overnight stops became Caldbeck, Borrowdale and Skelwith Bridge – an expected shortest day of 15 miles and longest of 22 miles.


The week of our departure was more than a little stressful on my side. In my completion of the Lakeland 50 at the end of July, I’d given myself a hefty dose of runner’s knee. For a couple of weeks I couldn’t walk down a flight of stairs, never mind the extended days and undulations of a four-day long-distance walking trip. I was cursing myself for not planning more time between the two, but thankfully the hours of stretching and foam rolling started to pay off, and I felt fit at least to start the trip and see how far I could get. The knee pain led to a shoe-choice dilemma that was to prove fateful. In the summer months, I normally walk in the same (quite sturdy) trail shoes that I run in, taking advantage of the ground mainly being firm and dry, and the bogs not too wet. In the winter, I switch to heavier, waterproof, crampon-compatible boots.


On the morning of departure, my gut was drawing me towards the trail shoes, but the thought of the extra weight of my hiking bag on the still slightly-niggly knee pointed me towards the more supportive boots. I put both pairs of shoes on and took them off again, then I tried one on each foot, then reversed them. Then Friend messaged to say that he was waiting outside, so I made a hasty decision, put both the boots back on, and ran out of the door. My nerves didn’t ease when I noted Friend’s full 50 litre rucksack, dwarfing my nowhere-near-full 30 litre. I was very conscious of my total lack of experience on a trip like this, so was sure I must have forgotten a dozen essential items. It later transpired that Friend’s packing included a pair of jeans, a laptop, and a hardback book, which reassured me somewhat. (I should own up that I also took my laptop, and I did pack a book, but mine was only a paperback!)


We got off to an inauspicious start. Early in the planning stages, we had mutually decided that the train trip from Ulverston to Carlisle to start the walk should be via the beautiful, slow train route that skirts the coast of Cumbria, stopping at a dozen or more villages and hamlets along the way. We could have taken a much faster trip on the West Coast Main Line, but neither of us had done the coast trip before, and were both keen to see it. On the drive to Ulverston, I checked our meticulously researched train times to discover that our connection in Barrow-in-Furness had been cancelled. The first two hours of our trip were therefore spent in Booths Café, hunched over our respective laptops!


We finally made it to Carlisle (the train trip was beautiful, and worth the wait) sometime after lunch, and found the disappointingly low-key ‘end’ of the walk, which was our starting point. I later read that the Carlisle end of the Way really isn’t marked at all, which must be disappointing for those completing the route in the ‘normal’ direction from south to north. Finding our way out of the city, we embarked on Day 1, a 15 mile, relatively flat section following the river Caldew almost the entire way to Caldbeck, our first stop. This section should have been uneventful – it’s very easy to navigate, and passes through beautiful country villages – nothing like the grandeur of the National Park. We’d been told though (through a chance conversation of Friend’s with a friend in the local Ramblers’ Association) that there was a major closure of the Way between Dalston and Cummersdale, and that the diversion was ‘like being early adventurers in the Amazon’. Checking the Way website today, this diversion is described as ‘entailing a medium to high chance of injury’! We were therefore both somewhat apprehensive on approaching the beginning of the three-mile diverted section. In the event, we were pleasantly surprised, and not a little disappointed at the lack of jeopardy. Yes, the diversion was muddy and slippery in places, and yes, we were forced to climb over and under fallen trees…but the majority of the three miles came under the heading of ‘very pleasant riverside ramble’.


As we approached Caldbeck, I started to become aware of a ‘hot spot’ on the back of my right heel – my decision to wear boots I hadn’t touched since last winter was coming back to bite me. Hot spots are walkers’ and runners’ early warning signs of blisters, and are ignored at your peril. Unfortunately and unaccountably, I did ignore it. By the time we reached our accommodation for the night, the Oddfellows Arms, I had a fully developed blister the size of a 2p piece on my right heel, and a matching hot spot on the left. I realised belatedly that when changing my shoes that morning, I hadn’t swapped into the sock combination (thin liner socks and mid-weight walking socks) that I know work in my winter boots.


In the end (to avoid mentioning blisters in every subsequent paragraph!) I managed to walk about 60 of the 73 miles with those 2p sized blisters on both heels – but good management (after the initial terrible decision to ignore the developing pain) meant that the skin stayed intact on both feet all the way. If you’re ever in this situation, and interested, I discovered a new technique by trial and error. I’ve always found that the usual Compeed-style blister plasters tend to slide down my heels, moved by continuous friction from the back of my shoe. On this trip, I worked out that if well secured with zinc tape over the top, they stayed in place all day.


Day 2 marked our transition into the National Park proper. From our first steps away from the Oddfellows we could see the bulk of High Pike growing slowly larger – perhaps for some an intimidating way to approach a hill, but we enjoyed the slow introduction to our first real climb. Descending the other side, we passed by Lingy Hut and Skiddaw House before shadowing the Glenderaterra Beck to skirt the back of Latrigg and drop into Keswick. The view down Glenderaterra looking towards Derwentwater was a highlight – definitely one of the points where we felt the great advantage of our north to south direction choice.



I was excited to leave Keswick – one of my least favourite moments of any long run or walk is when one leaves the peace and remoteness of the fells to re-join the bustle of a Lake District town, particularly in the height of summer. Keswick seemed (as it generally is!) almost unbearably busy. In my keenness to depart, I completely forgot my intention to stock up on Compeeds in Booths, a fact I only remembered when we’d traversed almost the entire length of Derwentwater.


The Cumbria Way from Keswick follows the west shore of the lake, down to Grange in Borrowdale. We enjoyed the ease and gentle views of this section, although both of us became a touch delirious towards the end of the day – a combination of fatigue and dropping blood sugar levels. I don’t remember much of the final few miles, but there was definitely a spirited discussion of the relative merits of frozen yoghurt and ice cream. We detoured by half a mile or so to our end point for the day of the Borrowdale Hotel – a step up from the very ‘pub’ accommodation of the night before, although we seemed to be the youngest guests by some 30 years. I loved the gently dated vibe – reminding me of my own days in the Cumbrian hospitality industry as a student in the early 00s.




Leaving the Borrowdale on Day 3 was probably the scariest moment of the trip for me. In moderate amounts of pain, and fearful of it becoming worse, Rosthwaite village represented my last chance for some miles to access public transport home. Once I’d passed that point, I was committing myself to travelling through the Langstrath valley, over Stake Pass, and halfway along Langdale before regaining a bus stop. Once we’d left the valley floor, and started to climb, the nerves eased again, and I started to enjoy what felt like our first taste of the Lake District underfoot. The Langstrath valley path is as uneven, loose and rocky as we typically expect to find in the fells, and was familiar and comforting, even as it slowed us down. I’m fascinated to look back on the two photos I took near the top of the pass – one from each side. They look almost identical, but felt so different. Langstrath is very quiet and remote – almost entirely unpeopled. Not many people walk in it, and there certainly isn’t a road almost the entire length of the valley. Langdale, by contrast, is busy and bustling – a favourite of walkers and climbers alike.



We took Stake Pass in our stride, and quickly found ourselves on the Mickleden path in the bottom of Langdale, heading towards Dungeon Ghyll. Friend and I are both fond of the Sticklebarn (the pub run by the National Trust at New Dungeon Ghyll) so a pint and plate of chips there was welcome. Our day ended with the easy, lovely stroll through Chapel Stile and Elterwater to Skelwith Bridge.


I think that both of us were a little nervous as we embarked on Day 4. I knew that I had the longest day yet of heel pain to contend with, as well as my niggly knee complaining a little more. Friend was also starting to feel some aches and pains. We decided to set an easy pace, not worrying about finish time – a relatively early start meant that we were confident of reaching Ulverston before dark.


The Way took us out of the National Park, via some of its most-loved places. We passed by Colwith Force waterfall shortly after setting off, and from there headed for Tarn Hows – a source of controversy! I love it: a legacy of childhood walks and picnics. Friend is not so keen – perhaps disdaining its man-made origins, and the hordes of tourists often present in high season. We continued into Coniston, united by the promise of a cake stop, and marvelling at its being the first such of the whole trip. We were not disappointed, claiming two slices of an extraordinarily well-laden coffee-and-biscoff cake at Lakes Hot Spot – highly recommended!


I knew I should stop at this point – really the last place I could easily make it home via public transport. My knee was moving from ‘niggle’ into ‘pain’ and we still had at least 6 hours to go. I wasn’t going to be defeated so close to the end though, so I pushed on. We enjoyed the long walk along Coniston’s shore (pausing for Friend to have a swim), but were excited to move away from the lake at the southern end to climb up to Beacon Tarn. This was moving into unfamiliar territory for both of us, and the tarn turned out to be a gem – a long, thin pool set between small hills, with perfect access points for swimming, and superb views back up towards the western fells.



As we left the tarn and descended into the final stages – a mixture of fields, lanes and small common areas, things (for me at least) got a bit surreal. Exhaustion and pain, but also the slowly growing joy of realising that I was going to make it all the way, despite all the setbacks of the year, combined to a heady giddiness that sustained me to the end – even on the final descent into Ulverston when I could scarcely weight-bear, and was hobbling down every hill. We met a cheery young American chap who uttered the memorable line ‘what’s a fell?’, I sang my favourite Flanders and Swann song for Friend’s entertainment (it’s the Gasman, if you’re a fellow fan), and we had an unplanned tea and biscuits stop underneath a wall, having just mutually admitted to one another that we were considering sitting down and having a cry.


The word of the final three miles was ‘cow’. Every other field seemed to have a medium sized herd, and we also encountered an above average number of ‘bull in field’ signs. One could almost imagine that the farmers of Ulverston are not keen on long distance walkers. At one point, Friend’s OS map differed from mine (both located on our phones). We made the (bad) decision to follow my map, only to find that we were trying to proceed into someone’s front yard. It later turned out (Cumbria Way website again – my top tip for long distance walking is to check the trail’s website before you set out!) that the way has been re-routed at this point, and Friend’s map had the new, correct route. We were forced to add half a mile to our trip, and a small but at this point significant amount of ascent, to regain the right way. Friend heroically refrained from saying ‘I told you so’. Some of the irritation at the quirky navigation and unhelpful terrain of the final miles was mitigated as we crested a hill to discover Morecambe Bay spread in front of us, the Hoad monument in the foreground. A landmark I’ve known since I was a baby, this view was the reason I’d wanted to walk north to south. We’d been debating the relative merits of the different directions at intervals throughout the walk, and came to no real conclusion, but did agree that as a final approach, this view beats the industrial estates on the outskirts of Carlisle.



Descending the beck into the Gill at Ulverston, we easily found the sculpture that marks the official ‘start’ of the Way – it remains a shame that there isn’t a matching one in Carlisle. Although Friend has made much bigger and more exciting trips, I was proud of my first long-distance walk. It still seems incredible in my mind to have travelled that distance on my feet, and I’m definitely keen to try other routes in the future.



In the end, our stats were as follows:

Day 1: 15.9 miles, 371m elevation, 6:01 hours (from Carlisle to Caldbeck)

Day 2: 21.1 miles, 887m elevation, 8:20 hours (from Caldbeck to Borrowdale)

Day 3: 19.6 miles, 716m elevation, 8:52 hours (from Borrowdale to Skelwith Bridge)

Day 4: 23.1 miles, 963m elevation, 11:27 hours (from Skelwith Bridge to Ulverston)


And my top tips (as a novice walker) for a trip like this are:

1. Check the route website before you start, in case of route closures or diversions!

2. You can manage with a single set of clothes, as long as you don’t mind being a bit smelly by the end. A clean pair of pants each day is a nice luxury, though.

3. Take a clean set of clothes and your flip flops for evenings.

4. Carry more Compeeds than you can possibly imagine needing, and make sure someone has emergency biscuits and tea stashed away somewhere.



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