Two weeks ago as I was tossing and turning in bed at some unearthly hour in the morning, elbowing the wall on every other toss, I had a sudden urge to walk the Cumbria Way.
I don’t know why, it hasn’t ever been on my bucket list. If anything I may have given it a passing thought before directing my mind back to more important things, such as what I was going to eat for breakfast the next day. Usually toast and eggs. Avocado too if I’m feeling flashy.
Thus, it was in the twilight hours that I decided I’d try to cram a long hike into my not exactly chaotic week, just for the heck of it.
DAY 1 – 16 kilometres/10 miles – 4 hours
On the first night of Christmas… Hah, only joking. On the first day of Spring, with full intentions of having a lie-in before putting my body through the mill on the Cumbria Way, I was woken up at 6 am because my brother decided to get up and watch the F1. I resisted the urge to go downstairs and make my feelings clear, mainly because I was warm in bed and I also needed him to give me a lift to Ulverston later that day. So I merely cursed him silently as I heard him go back to bed whilst I lay there with my eye twitching.
Nevertheless, there’s nothing a good breakfast can’t cure (yes, food is always on my mind) and I packed up my expedition bag. All the while the words of my Mountain Leadership Instructor echoed in my head: “no luxuries”. Toothbrush and paste? Luxury. Thermos? Absolute luxury. Living off the bare minimum means a lighter backpack, so I shunned everything but the basics, apart from some baby wipes. There is a line to the grime I can handle.
Packed and ready, excited but nervous, my favourite-brother-ever drove me to Ulverston whilst I munched on my Marmite sandwich (food reference number 1…) and, waving a cheerful goodbye, I went on my merry way. Passing through the fields of Cumbria, I gradually left the seaside behind me and gained on the mountainous landscape of the Lake District. Happy as Larry, I was in map heaven and marched along cheerily with my 1:40000 scale map I was using for the trail (as opposed to the usual 1:25000 scale OS map *nerd alert).
By early evening I reached my wild camping spot, Beacon Tarn. After watching one of the most incredible sunsets I had seen in a while, I passed out for the night at an almost record-breaking 8 pm. I love an early night. However, I was soon shivered out of my slumber in order to get back into all my clothes (bar my waterproofs) as the temperature outside dropped well below sub-zero. Throughout the night, in a feeble attempt to avoid heading out into the Baltic temperatures, I was desperately resisting the need to wee. I lost feeling in both feet and developed shivers so strong they started from my belly. If you know, you KNOW. It was apparently so cold that my fancy mountain Suunto watch broke because it couldn’t handle the Cumbrian chill, which wasn’t ideal… but Hey Ho I still had my trusty old iPod.
DAY 2 – 37 kilometres/23 miles – 11 hours
Nature’s alarm woke me up bright and early. The ducks started to spring into action and something unknown ran screeching past my tent (?!). Keen to get moving, if not just to restore some feeling to my frozen limbs, I exited the tent to find the entire thing frozen over and a thick layer of frost on the ground. Winter wasn’t letting Spring come in without a fight. After quickly scoffing down my oats hopping from foot to foot, I hobbled numbly off down the fell towards Coniston (one hour in and the feeling began to finally, slowly and painfully, return to my toes).
The miles went by and the landscape became increasingly dramatic as I approached Great Langdale. I planned to camp higher up on the fells to avoid the watchful eye of farmers, but at some point had failed to account for what was quite literally a huge wall between me and my bed. At 5 pm, near the end of my walking day, I approached Stakes Pass which very much felt like the crossing over to Mordor. Tired and weary there’s nothing like a 1200ft ascent in front of you, and a mental nod to Lord of the Rings to finish off an 11 hour trek. Funnily enough, and despite my own expectations, I got up there in a jiffy. It’s amazing what your body can do if you tell it that it doesn’t have a choice.
I quickly found a lovely spot for my tent, nestled amongst the hillocks, sheltered from the wind and the perfect size for my wee one-man. Knackered both physically and mentally I wolfed down some tuna and oatcakes and passed out at 6 pm, possibly a personal record.
Now I think about it, there was a lot of frenzied eating… Like Daisy the Land Rover guzzled petrol by the gallon in Western Australia (throwback!), I was burning off those oats by the mile in Cumbria.
DAY 3 – 22 kilometres/14 miles – 6 hours
After a solid 12 hours of sleep and a couple of mad dashes out into the cold and rain for a wee, I rose from the depths of unconsciousness, excited for the new day and to make my porridge from the coziness and warmth of my sleeping bag. Still in that blissful stage of semi-sleep, I turned over to discover, and had somehow slept through the fact that, I was lying in two inches of water. Can’t say I was overly surprised. I had pitched up on a spot that had been perfectly dry, although at the time I’d spotted a small patch of lurid green moss near by… which is generally a fair indicator of land that is used to bathing in water. Anyway, it was all good practice. I remained scarily calm in the face of total wetness and in a zen-like state got dressed in my sodden clothes, squeezed out my sodden socks, tipped the water out of my sodden boots, emptied my sodden backpack, folded up my sodden sleeping bag and sodden mat before making my sodden way.
That morning’s events gave me a newfound determination and I squelched down towards Seathwaite, with destination Keswick fixed firmly in my mind. It’s quite remarkable what motivation the prospect of a freshly made sandwich provides to a grubby and water-logged hiker. True to my mental word, when I arrived in Keswick, I sought out a cafe that looked like it did BIG food. There are moments, quite often in my life, when you don’t want fiddly small stuff that half fills you up. Rather you want huge, sugary, fatty and carb filled food that’ll see you through ’till morning. Luckily I found ‘Laura in the Lakes’. Not only were they super kind to a probably revolting human being who was occupying a large amount of shop floor with their backpack, but they had cake, and sandwiches, and warmth, and dryness.
After demolishing two large toasties and a huge slab of Indian teacake (“when in Keswick”) I jumped on a bus to Penrith to grab the train back to Lancaster. Trying to make myself a little more presentable, not easy, I made the error of taking off my walking boots to put on dry socks. In much the same way as you should never take off a painful ski boot, nor should you ever remove a painful walking one. I couldn’t bring myself to pull them back onto my bleeding feet, so train travelled with my feet doing that awkward halfway perch in my boots – so as not to be accused of being a shoeless youth by other passengers. My body seized up before I could say “I need a bath”, and for a couple of days I walked with a weird lope that no amount of foam rolling could seemingly fix. I may not have done the last leg of the Way (I won’t bore you with the details) but I had the-best-time-ever, and at the very least, I set some serious sleeping PBs.
By the way, if anyone needs route specific, highlighted, laminated, 1:25000 scale mini OS maps, I’m your woman. Niche.