Walking in The Lake District

Like so much of the UK, The Lake District is one of those places I’d never got round to visiting properly. I have no idea why, even from London it only takes about two and a half hours on the train (which is the same as some journeys I’ve had home with Southern Trains) and if you book in advance you can get pretty cheap tickets. I guess it’s one of those places that gets pushed down the priority list against exciting places abroad that seem like a more interesting option.

Seriously though, if you’ve never been, go. The place is remarkably beautiful. I’m already obsessed with it after 3 days. Probably go back there in the next few months.

To be honest, I hadn’t actually planned on visiting the Lake District per se. What I actually wanted to do was attempt the Wainright Coast to Coast. I’d spent a week running through the route, working out where to stay and planning my trains. The only problem was, I was hoping to do it over six days. Further investigation online (along with some confused looks from friends) suggested that the normal amount of time needed to make the 200-mile trip was about 12 days.

Without knowing the area at all, and with no desire to end up sleeping at the top of a mountain in the rain because I was lost, I decided to make a slightly shorter trip across the first part of the route; The Lake District.

Now, I’d only been to The Lake District once before, to take part in a swim across Lake Windermere. I basically jumped on a train, got to Windermere, had dinner, fell asleep, swam a ridiculously slow breaststroke for a mile, then jumped on a train and left. I didn’t really get to experience a great deal of the area while I was there. What I did remember from the trip however is that it looked pretty amazing. The only problem was that I probably didn’t understand enough about the area to effectively plan a three-day walking trip through it.

As walking goes, I’m no slouch. I’ve done some pretty tough 24-hour walking events before and found them completely manageable (you can read about them here if you’re interested). So I prepared for my trip with a level of confidence that was perhaps a little bit unwarranted. The route I planned to take would start from the coastal town of Drigg, take me to Skafell Pike (England’s highest mountain), to Boot, Windermere and then to Kendal. In total it looked like it was going to be about 50-miles over three days. Completely doable for your average walker.

There were two things that I didn’t account for as much as I should have: Mountains and route planning. Both of which are pretty important. Yep, I’m quite possibly an idiot.

 

Starting on Tuesday Morning, the journey from Drigg would take me on a relatively straight route across the Lake District, via Scafell Pike, to Kendal, where I’d pick up my train back to London Euston.

When I was originally going to attempt the Coast to Coast I bought a guide-book with maps for the whole journey. I had hoped to use this to make my way to Kendal, however the directions it took weren’t doable for my three-day trip. So instead I used a combination of online ordinance survey maps and Google Maps to plan each part of the trip. There is however a level of skill in navigating across a mountain range that you don’t really need in most other UK locations. Again, definitely an idiot.

My aim for the majority of the trip was to avoid roads as much as possible. I’d done walks along country lanes before and sheer winding nature of the quite often tiny roads makes for a fairly dangerous journey. You spend a lot of the time stopping and waiting for distant cars to come past, or creeping around corners to see if there’s anything coming. It’s not particularly relaxing. This is where my first problem came in. The Lake District is a complete nightmare to try to find useable trails and paths. Yeah, there’s signposts, but they seem to appear and disappear randomly, quite often taking you to a point where you have the option of climbing a high fence or walking back.

For the first few hours my journey was a mixture of trails, roads, backtracking and trying to up my ordinance survey skills in an effort to find a nice place to walk. As I moved away from the villages and hamlets things became simpler. I found more paths and the natural landscape made it easier to aim towards a general direction. The confusing signs and questionable public bridleways where however a constant cause of difficulty. Some gates were clearly marked with national trust signs whilst others looked like gates into people’s gardens.

My first geographical target was Wast Water. A big lake that would lead me all the way to the base of Scafell Pike. All I’d need to do was find it then follow the water all the way round until I found the signs for the various routes up the mountain. Couldn’t be simpler right? Wrong, actually.

The lake itself was a place of almost complete solitude. In fact the majority of the first day meant I saw about ten people, most at a distance. As I walked to the water I looked across at the side of the lake I realised that there was in fact no path following it round, just a sheer climb to the mountain next to it. I looked back and realised I’d have to walk the hour or so back to pick up a different route the other side. A modification that would put me at least two hours behind schedule.

After some wandering I found, with some relief, a makeshift trail around the lake and began to make my way around the side. things were looking okay again, all I need to do was keep following it. My joy was quickly swallowed up when after twenty minutes the trail stopped leaving nothing but a climb of rocks leading at least 400 metres upwards. I sat down and ran through my options.

With the afternoon wearing thin I started to worry that I not only wouldn’t be able to make it to Scafell Pike, but would maybe even struggle to make it over to my hotel in Boot before it got dark. I looked up and down at the climb until finally deciding to give it a go. Another twenty minutes of scrambling along rocks which were literally sliding out from under my feet meant a dramatic rethink. I had to go back and try another route.

After reaching the start of the lake again I went through my options. I could try to work my way round to the road on the other side, I could head back to an earlier point and take a route round the other side of the mountain, or – and I didn’t really fancy this one after 6 hours of walking – I could try to get over the mountain. I knew that Boot was almost a straight line over the top of where I was, which would probably save me a lot of time once I got over.

I opted for the third option, largely because I could face two hours of walking the same route I’d already taken, with the risk I may also have to get a taxi as it may be too dark for me to make my way on foot.

Dear sweet heavens it was difficult, an almost vertical climb along a trail barely visible under moss and foliage meant for a pretty tough climb. And this mountain was only about 600 metres against the 1,000 of Scafell Pike. As you can probably guess I gave up on the idea of making it up England’s highest during this trip.

The climb took a while, and by the top I was covered in sweat. The wind and rain at the top meant I didn’t stay warm for long though and I quickly had to put on another layer before making my way down the other side. The view was amazing though. At 600 metres the fog and cloud cover was still much higher than where I was stood (I couldn’t see the higher mountain tops) which mean a pretty impressive view for miles around.

I now had another couple of options: to head down a similar track the other side which may take me in the wrong direction for a while, or risk heading straight towards the direction of Boot. I took the second again. For the first part the route down was actually pretty nice. In the distance I could see another hill which marked the valley where I was staying and the ground underfoot was pretty easy to move along. That didn’t last long though. After a couple of miles I was making my way through a dense foliage that went up to my neck. What made it worse was that the decline had become considerably steeper and I could no longer see the ground. Thanks Christ I brought my poles with me.

Eventually, after miles of precarious walking I reached the bottom of the first valley, a valley with a massive stream at the bottom. Once again I was pretty stuck. I followed it for a while, toying with the idea of using stepping-stones to get across, however it looked a little too risky. Luckily after another mile or so I saw the rare image of a signpost which led to a bridge.

Things didn’t get any easier. The next hill was waterlogged to the point where it was like walking across a swampland, with the following decline that led to The Boot Inn considerably harder than the previous. Ruddy nice place to stay though, if you were wondering.

After my first day a lesson had been learned. The Lake District needs preparation for walkers. I’d underestimated it.

After a slap up full English, I set out for day two with a revised plan for my route. Instead of risking getting lost again, I decided to stick to the roads that led all the way to Windermere. After a slightly varied day of effort, I didn’t really fancy covering the same trials a second time.

The 20 mile route would see me heading from Boot to Cockley Beck, over to Ambleside then down to Windermere. On a map it looked pretty simple and straight. In reality though it wasn’t quite as easy. The first bit of the route was a thin, winding road that was almost impossible to allow any visibility on vehicles heading along it, meaning a stunted walk of jumping into hedges to allow vehicles to get past.

Because of this I attempted to use my OS maps to find alternative routes. This was pretty pointless though, I ended up snaking around the road itself and often ended up a short distance up the road after walking twice as far on tracks. In the end I just swallowed it up and carried on with my careful road journey.

In reality, there aren’t a great deal of cars driving through the more secluded parts of the Lake District, so it turned out not to be too bad, that was until I realised that I’d have to follow the road up through a pretty high area called Hardknott Pass. I’d kind of hoped that by using the roads I could avoid elevation, but I was completely wrong. It was a killer climb. Luckily the views from the top meant for a fairly forgiving treat afterwards.

The real joy however was the long winding road down the other side.

The rest of the second day was much of the same. It rained a hell of a lot for the whole day. Which is one reason I was pleased not to be trudging my way through waterlogged ground for another day, As I came up to Skelwith Bridge the road suddenly joined the A593 and I had to find a new route using footpaths and country roads to avoid the increased traffic.

The last few miles from Amblemere to Windermere became a real slog. After eight hours of consistent walking in the rain, all I wanted to do was get changed. The distance was a lot further than I’d thought though, and I was actually getting a bit tired. Finally turning up at The Windermere was a pretty sweet treat.

I had planned to walk the final ten miles from Windermere to Kendal on the third day, however with the rain still beating down, no idea what the route was like and the fact I’d booked a train for early afternoon, I decided not to risk it. Instead I jumped on a train and spent the morning wandering around Kendal. Ruddy lovely place in fact.

So, as you may have gleaned from my trip, there were learnings. I was pretty pleased that I hadn’t attempted the coast to coast before having a go at the Lake District. Firstly, mountains make covering distance a lot more difficult – I suddenly understood why some of the coast to coast days were suggested as 8 – 10 miles. Secondly, the Lake District is really hard to navigate without either planning properly, or knowing the area. Definitely do a bit more planning than I did, and probably don’t do it on your own unless you know what you’re doing.

There are various online resources for visiting the Lake District, as well as guided tours to make the whole thing a bit easier.